Six members of the National Farmers Union spent last week sorting through a maze of global trade proposals being pushed at the World Trade Organization during the current Doha round of trade talks.
While designed as an opportunity to learn the status of agriculture negotiations, the meetings also allowed the farmers to share their concerns. "We all know that trade can be an important component of farm income," said John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union. "However, when the rules that apply to trade undermine the ability of family farmers to make a living, we have a problem, and that's the point we wanted our negotiators to hear."
Hansen and his colleagues insist that requirements in trade agreements like those imposed under the previous Uruguay Round of trade talks have seriously undermined American farmers.
Robert Carlson, a North Dakota wheat and livestock producer and president of that state's Farmers Union, says the major problem with the global accord is that it takes away the right of individual nations to formulate sound domestic farm policy. "American farm policy options have become so limited as a result of international agreements that we cannot depend on being able to provide an adequate safety net for producers," Carlson said. "While this year's farm bill provides some support for family farmers, the trade talks continue to whittle away at domestic policies."
While opening American borders to some products may benefit consumers, the Farmers Union leaders said agricultural products are often a different story. According to California Farmers Union President Joaquin Contente, "We can produce more of some foodstuffs than we need in the U.S., yet we're forced to accept a certain level of imports from other countries, which does nothing but drive down our prices and those of producers around the world. It makes no sense."
John Stencel, president of Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, which includes Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming, said the same case can be made for products in the states he represents. "We're really worried about the effects of these agreements on the individual producer," he said. "There are a lot of arguments for free trade but most of them are made by commodity buyers and sellers, not by farmers."
The group, which included NFU staff members Jim Miller and Clay Pederson, met with WTO officials and negotiators from the United States, New Zealand, Australia, Japan, Brazil, Costa Rica, Mauritius, China, and the European Union while in Geneva. Pederson also represented the group at the International Federation of Agricultural Producers meeting, speaking on industrial concentration among the processors, input suppliers, wholesalers, retailers and transporters of farm goods.