One night during a dairy tour through Argentina last month, our tour organizers from DeLaval took us to the Swedish Embassy in Buenos Aires. There, Swedish ambassador Arne Rodin was our host. Rodin is an elegant aristocratic kind of guy, who first fell in love with Argentina as a 19-year-old traveling the world in the Swedish Navy. In between all that he made a career for himself at the United Nations and later, as lead trade negotiator for Sweden. We enjoyed pleasant conversation until I mentioned I was going to be in Hong Kong for WTO.
"You know, I was in Seattle in 1999," he said casually. If you remember, that was the year the WTO talks were destroyed by every anarchist, protester, malcontent and anti-globalist who could buy a ticket to the great Northwest. The world's negotiators went there to try to hammer out a deal on world trade and the talks were a miserable failure to say the least.
"I recall it was like a reunion of the flower power hippies," Rodin said. "One time I went out in to the crowd with my WTO badge on and they spit on me. They actually spit on me."
I was soaking this up, thinking about my own journey to Hong Kong next week when the WTO holds its crucial ministerial meeting to hammer out a new trade agreement.
Agriculture has always been the hangup in these talks, and Hong Kong will be no different. The posturing this week has been nearly comical, with press releases blistering the email in-box.
Lately the big battles have been between the European Union and the United States over market access and farm subsidy programs; the so-called 'amber box' (trade distorting) policies that wreak havoc among the world's ag exporters. I expect the LDC (Lesser developed countries) to play a big role in the discussion next week as well.
I asked Rodin what it was like to sit down at high-level negotiations and stare down your 'trade partners.' Some of the discussions dragged on forever, he said. "Of course, you go in there knowing exactly what you can give up and where the line is you can't cross," he added. "And you always start at a certain point, knowing the outcome will be something else altogether."
The French, said Rodin, were the toughest negotiators. They had certain things they would not give on, he added. He recalled how every few minutes the French negotiator would ask to leave the room so he could call President Jacques Chirac back in France.
"Do you think WTO negotiations would succeed if the French were not part of the discussion?" I asked him. "Of course," he responded. (Even so, I don't blame the French for wanting to keep their protectionist trade policies. They have a wonderful food culture, and wealthy consumers who don't mind paying high prices for quality, locally-grown food).
It does seem frustrating, though, that so much of the world's ag trade decisions can be thwarted by one country.
Poorer countries learned during the last WTO meeting they can have an impact on rich countries through the power of the WTO vote. The LDCs will be a factor next week.
Just this week the FAO issued a report saying that the benefits of trade reform may not reach the poor unless urgent complementary policies and investments are made.
The State of Food and Agriculture 2005 examines agricultural trade and poverty, seeking to answer the question: Can trade work for the poor?
According to SOFA 2005, the answer is yes, but trade liberalization alone is not enough. Policies and investments must be put in place to allow the poor to benefit from trade opportunities and to protect the vulnerable against trade-related shocks. "Agricultural trade and further trade liberalization can unlock the potential of the agriculture sector to promote pro-poor growth, but these benefits are not guaranteed,bCrLf the report states.
The FAO report says that industrial countries have the most to gain from agriculture trade liberalization, because their agriculture sectors are the most distorted by existing policies. Consumers in currently protected markets and producers in countries with low levels of domestic support would tend to gain the most.
Well, that's just a sample of the reports that come out just before a big meeting like this. The next time you hear from me I should be reporting to you from Hong Kong. Stay tuned.