The agricultural economists at
Agri-Food Economic Systems say it’s time to negotiate a new world trade deal
that puts teeth into commitments to cut farm subsidies.
Cutting subsidies was a driving force
behind the Uruguay Round of world trade negotiations that for the first time
came up with major reforms for agriculture.
The concern then was that farm
subsidies in rich nations, such as Canada, the United States, Europe and Japan,
encouraged surplus production which went into world markets at fire-sale
That drove down prices and hurt all
farmers, but particularly those in poor nations that could not afford to match
the rich-country subsidies.
The one big change that came from the
Uruguay Round was to convert all trade-distorting import restrictions into
tariffs that are easy to see and understand and also easier to negotiate
But no new deals have emerged because
the Doha Round of negotiations is at stand-still after more than a decade of
In the meantime, the authors of the
Agri-Food Economic Systems study say many nations have found new ways to
subsidize farmers without breaking the Uruguay-Round rules.
The upshot is little change from
overall subsidies before the Uruguary Round, they say. While the letter of the
agreement’s rules are obeyed, the spirit is undermined.
The richer nations have, by and
large, managed to hold subsidies at pre-Uruguary-Round totals. Not so with some
of the emerging economies.
“The increase was particularly rapid
in Indonesia, the Russian Federation, Brazil, Kazakhstan, and China,” says the
They increased farm supports from the
1995-97 period to 2012-14 period by 43 per cent in the Russian Federation, by 33
per cent in Brazil, by 26 per cent in Kazakhstan and by 22 per cent in China.
One subsidy that’s important, but not
counted, is irrigation water in the United States. It’s provided at well below
cost and the resulting food production lowers prices not only in the United States,
but also in many other countries.
Another example of ongoing, or new trade-distorting
subsidies is offering “only small levels of market price support, making it
easy to stay below their WTO limits even if the support activity impacts the
national market as a whole,” says the report.
They cite a list of other
trade-distorting policies, such as provinces, states or municipalities offering
tax breaks or subsidies to set up new food-processing plants, subsidies that
depress global food prices and subsidies on inputs, such as water, fertilizer
and even environmental protection.
“There are issues in other pillars as
well, such as national standards for environmental goods and associated product
claims (and the problem of “greenwashing”), labour standards, and animal
welfare. These have increasingly become market access issues, not contemplated
under the existing pillars,” they say.
All of this generates frustrations and leads to
“One could foresee two or more
decades of trade litigation on a case by case basis to tackle these issues
one-by-one within the WTO framework,” they write.
“The frustration will come from the
way in which the WTO rules were designed to protect or minimize some of the
issues; a case in point may well be the underpricing of water for agriculture
in the USA, and not including such underpricing in the domestic (or export)
“No nation has challenged the way the
U.S. has excluded this support to agriculture. Importers of U.S. product enjoy
the lower price and hence have no reason to challenge. Other exporters face the
problem of the immense costs to raise a successful challenge.”
All of these issues underline the
need for a new deal, they say. But to inform the negotiations, “what we do not
have today is a comprehensive, detailed study of and proposals for the various
issues noted above, building on what took place over 20 years ago.
“It is time to design a framework to
deal with these issues on a multilateral basis, rather than the tackling the
myriad of issues through trade litigation,” they say.
“Such an approach would address many
of the most politically toxic regional issues in several countries.
Necessarily, this will be a long-term endeavor, but hopefully less costly and
more inclusive than setting precedents one-by-one through WTO litigation, not
all of which would have successful outcomes across the range of issues,” they
“Canada needs to take this issue more
seriously. Canadian agri-food was revolutionized by trade liberalization in the
early 1990’s, and this requires renewal.
“If aspects of proposed changes in
supply management are challenged internationally, part of the defense of
program changes and accommodation of supply-managed groups will need to be more
effectively listening to their concerns about the structure of international
trade disciplines and the actions of other countries under these disciplines,”
An example of proposed supply
management changes is the Dairy Farmers of Ontario plan to cut milk prices for
processing protein isolates, thereby displacing imports and perhaps even generating
exports. That could trigger complaints to the WTO.
Another dairy example is Quebec
farmers calling for reform of cheese-standard regulations with the intent of
The research might also dampen rising
criticisms of all international free-trade deals, they say.
There is urgency to these issues
because the long run of relatively high farm commodity prices is ending, and
the income-support programs many countries, including Canada, have put in place
are likely to trigger massive payouts.
“It is an opportune time now to
consider how countries are supporting agriculture and how this aligns with
agreed upon commitments- both in strict magnitudes of support and in broader
concept given the intent of the WTO agreement,” they write
“This should lead to reconsideration
and modernization of our framework for disciplines on agricultural support.”
The lead author is Karal Karunagoda
and among the co-authors is Douglas Hedley, former chief economist and a long-serving
member of the trade negotiating team for the federal agriculture department.