Unless there is some sudden and unanticipated breakthrough, the Doha Round trade talks look increasingly likely to fail over agricultural trade. It has to be remembered that under US trade law the schedules must be handed to the US Congress at least 180 days before Trade Promotion Authority expires on 1 June. It is unlikely to be renewed and it would be impossible to get any deal through the inward looking Congress without it.
So the blame game is now on with many fingers pointing at Uncle Sam. One view is that the US remained particularly intransigent, refusing to give ground on domestic farm support until it was assured significant market access to emerging economies. The US was pressing for a 90% cut in tariff rates compared with the 75% sought by the G-20. Moreover, Oxfam argued that the US's offer on farm support would actually allow it to increase farm payments compared to present levels.
US negotiators argued that developing nations would only reap real benefits from trade if there was significant market liberalisation. This neo-liberal vision did not appeal to the developing countries who argued that substantial opening of markets should be not be forced on their fragile economies.
The US is perhaps on stronger ground when it criticises the stance of emerging countries, arguing that richer developing countries such as Brazil, India and China should stop hiding behind poor nations in the trade talks and start to open up their own markets. This overlooks the fact that Brazil, where the agriculture minister has recently resigned, has a big problem with the army of landless labourers belonging to the radical MST movement. The large peasant populations in India and China (where there have been a number of disturbances surrounding the seizure of farm land for development) could easily be radicalised or could flood into the cities looking for work.
US ag policy is in a mess
The fact remains that US ag poicy is in a mess. As the authoritative Agra Europe has commented, 'What stands out a mile on the farm support issue is that successive US Administrations have got themselves into an unholy mess on agricultural support from which the current Administration will have to extricate itself both to be able to move on Doha and, eventually, to conciliate its own taxpayers.'
At the root of the problem is electoral politics in the US. As Graham Wilson has shown, the farm vote can still be decisive in tight contests for the Senate in interior states. But, above all, the cost of getting re-elected, not least in the House, means that even urban Congress members are willing to take donations from farm lobbies.
The FAIR act of 1994 appeared to open up a whole new era in US farm policies, including the introduction of totally decoupled income payments to replace production subsidies. However, once commodity prices started to fall in the late 1990s, the farm lobby successfully pressured for more handouts, initially on an 'emergency' basis and later consolidated in the 2002 Farm Bill which was a backward step. In particular, the introduction of counter cyclical payments was particularly damaging from a world market perspective as they maintain US production at high levels even when market prices are falling.
The US also hands out $1.5 billion in government-financed crop insurance. This is treated as non-product specific under the 'de minimis' rule. However, the EU and others argue that almost all US crop insurance is product specific.
The EU does appear to be prepared to give ground on senistive products, lowering them from 8% to about 5% of all tariff lines, although that would still be far too high as far as almost all other participants in the trade talks are concerned.