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Dirt in Toten – live Africa?

Who should we be in solidarity with – farmers on Toten or in Africa? This is how Norway's situation in the WTO negotiations is often presented.


The WTO is in the midst of its many parallel negotiations leading up to a summit in Hong Kong later this autumn. The agricultural negotiations are just one of them – and are often linked to the negotiations on trade in industrial goods (NAMA) and in services (GATS). Both the EU and the US have made it clear that they will not allow more food into their markets unless poorer countries lower tariffs on industrial goods and open up their markets to efficient Western service providers.

This link puts poor countries under duress, and it does not make the situation any easier for agricultural negotiations to divide developing countries themselves.

A strong moral appeal

Here in Norway, Norwegian Church Aid has come out strongly with views that have a strong moral appeal: Now Norway must stop being the worst in the world when it comes to food protectionism. We must lower food tariffs and reduce support for agriculture so that poor farmers can sell us more of the food we eat.

Unge Høyre has so far been most out with such appeals, but has support from most of the right-wing side – and indirect support from all Norwegian export industries.

Assumptions that do not hold

But this appeal rests on assumptions that do not hold. If WTO negotiations end up with more imports of food into Norway, poor developing countries will not benefit most from it. The big winners are major agricultural exporters such as the EU, USA, Canada, Australia and Brazil.

In 2002, we bought food from other countries for NOK 22 billion. 14 billion of food imports came from the EU and 4 billion from other OECD countries (USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand).

This means that we bought 80 percent of our food from the richest countries in the world. Of the other 20 per cent, most are goods that we do not produce in Norway (coffee, tea, southern fruits) – and for which we therefore have no customs duty.

Equal treatment as a general rule

Except for coffee, tea and southern fruits, today we buy almost all the food from prosperous countries with well-developed agriculture. If the WTO negotiations lead to more food exports to Norway, everything will still come from such countries. The reason is that the WTO has as a general rule that a member country must have the same tariffs and other trade rules vis-à-vis all member countries in the WTO.

There are exceptions to this general rule. Groups of countries can enter into free trade agreements and customs union agreements. However, most such agreements link rich countries (EU, EEA) and thus provide rich countries with mutual benefits that poor countries do not have.

LDC countries are selling less and less

There are also agreements where poor countries are given special benefits when dealing with rich countries. One of them is the Cotonou Agreement between the EU and about seven countries in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific. Another is the preference agreements that the world's poorest countries, the so-called LDC countries, have, for example, with Norway and with the EU.

But none of these agreements have meant much to international trade development. The LDCs' share of world food exports has fallen from 1970 per cent to 3,5 per cent since 1,0 – despite the fact that it is the LDCs that are the easiest to access in European markets.

So what's the alternative?

An important starting point must be that 90 per cent of all food is sold in domestic markets. Only 10 per cent is sold and purchased across borders. Then it becomes important that the WTO rules, the rules for how the tenth of the food is to be bought and sold, do not affect the part of agriculture that supplies most people with food.

Most developing countries are net importers of food. They are worthy of protecting their own farmers against excessive competition from outside, but at the same time it is possible to buy cheap food from other countries.

The principle of food sovereignty

This can be a difficult balancing act as the WTO does not accept that import quotas can be used to regulate imports. Such regulation can, as a rule, only take place through customs, and the tariff rates must be constantly lowered through mutual agreements in the WTO.

The growing number of food-importing developing countries is gathering the principle of food sovereignty: that all countries must have the right to decide to what extent it will supply their own population with food produced domestically.

But here, naturally, they conflict with the interests of developing countries (Argentina, Brazil, China, South Africa), which have the potential to significantly increase food exports if there is a global agreement on lower tariffs on food.

Norway in much needed position

Norway is in a much-needed position in these negotiations. Previous governments – regardless of color – have defined our offensive interests (fish, oil extraction, telecommunications and engineering services, etc.) as the most important in the WTO negotiations – with the underlying message that if we are to achieve anything on the offensive side, we must have something to offer , for example parts of the import protection for agriculture.

If this line is also perceived as solidarity with poor countries, we can get in the bag: good moral status, cheaper food at home and safer markets outside Statoil, Hydro, Telenor.

Food sovereignty or agrobusiness?

But the principle of food sovereignty is no less solidary than giving the food giants a freer blow on the world market. World trade in food is for all important commodities in the hands of large American and European corporations. Increased food exports from Brazil could provide employment for more agricultural workers, but could also affect family farming in many other developing countries – and strengthen the link between plantation agriculture and international agrobusiness.

A new government can therefore safely base food sovereignty on the Norwegian positions in the WTO. Then it must also go against all forms of export support. It is the export subsidies to the EU and the US that currently hit local food producers hardest in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Special benefits for poor countries

At the same time, it is important that poor countries must have better access to the Norwegian market. This should happen without Norway advocating a general liberalization of world trade, but instead by including more poor countries in the trade preferences of the poorest developing countries today. The so-called LDC countries, the 48 poorest countries in the world, today have complete duty-free importation to Norway.

Equally important is that poor countries have full rights to protect industries that they want to develop within the framework of a national business policy. Norway must therefore withdraw all support for the requirement that developing countries must accept general cuts in tariffs on industrial goods. And we must withdraw all the demands that the Bondevik government has made to third world countries to open important service sectors for full foreign competition.

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