In the heated debate over agricultural liberalisation taking place within the World Trade Organisation, developing countries and various non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are criticising the distortion of world food markets brought about by the protectionism of the big developed powers: the United States and the European Union. In the case of Europe, the Common Agricultural Policy’s (CAP) export subsidies are blamed for promoting unfair trade. Does the solution lie in a greater liberalisation of the overprotected European food markets?
Africa loses out
On 24 November, the EU Council of Ministers announced that the price of subsidised sugar would be cut by 36% and that farmers would be compensated for 64.2% of their losses. The effects of the measure will be felt not only by the European sugar market, but also by the African, Caribbean and Pacific countries (ACP), who have been granted privileged access to the European Union’s markets since 1975. From now on, these countries will have to compete with sugar-producing giants such as Brazil and Thailand. On the same day, the ACP group published a communiqué, branding the measure “insulting” and the promises of compensation “insufficient”. Chairman of the ACP Sugar Group and Ambassador of the Eastern Caribbean States to Brussels, George Bullen, announced that this was “a black day for the ACP sugar industry” and that the decision sent “a message of doom to the small and poor sugarcane farmers”. According to the ACP, the sugar market is one of the major sources of income for developing countries. Bullen stressed that the measure was “contradictory to EU rhetoric on its commitment to the Millennium Development Goals and the Doha Round [of WTO talks]”, reiterating the fact that “the EU cannot expect to progress at [the negotiations] in Hong Kong at the expense of the ACP.”
In defence of food sovereignty
According to Paul Nicholson, European coordinator for the international agrarian network Vía Campesina and member of the Basque farmers’ union EHNE, the total liberalisation of agriculture would mean the “sacrifice” of the rural economic sector. Nicholson defends the European Union’s right, and the right of all the world’s governments, to assert their “own food sovereignty”, that is, to regulate their agricultural market and satisfy the needs of their citizens. “The European Common Agricultural Policy is not bad in itself”, stresses Nicholson. “What is bad and what we do denounce is the agricultural export model sustained by EU export aid.” According to Vía Campesina, an organisation made up of farmers’ associations from developed as well as developing countries, the exportation of subsidised European agricultural products has damaging consequences for the world’s family farmers. It is for this reason that Vía Campesina wants to make sure that these countries can protect themselves against cheap foreign imports. Nicholson is part of Vía Campesina’s European delegation that will participate in the protests against the WTO summit in Hong Kong.
A CAP is fine, just not the one we have
Gonzalo Fanjul, research coordinator for Intermón Oxfam, says, “it is necessary to protect EU farmers but what we need isn’t what we have.” More specifically, according to Fanjul, “the Common Agricultural Policy is unfair” given that “it doesn’t share out the subsidies evenly, it encourages intensive farming and it harms the environment.” These criticisms are not new: the non-governmental organisation Oxfam, of which Intermón is a part, has campaigned for fair trade since its creation in 1995. According to Fanjul, the CAP thus contributes to “the hijacking of agricultural markets in the developing world.” In the view of Intermón Oxfam, the CAP “should consider the impact it is having on poor countries and redirect its efforts towards helping family farms and the European rural environment, environmental sustainability in agricultural production and the production of healthy, quality foods.” In short, a reformulation of the Common Agricultural Policy, aimed at alleviating the poverty of farmers in the developing world.
From Barcelona, Míriam Rodríguez helped in the writing of this article.