Free trade when it suits us


There’s been a huge business story going on in the world recently that most people around here likely haven’t heard about, or – if they have – don’t care about. I’m talking about the latest failure of the WTO’s Doha talks.

The discussions are all about freeing up global agriculture trade – No, wait! I can almost feel eyes glazing over and antsy fingers twitching the mouse toward the “back” button. But this really is a critical issue, one of those topics where global business directly intertwines with human justice and dignity.

Please forgive my assumption that nobody cares about this topic; it’s a notion I’ve picked up from media coverage and discussions with my peers. I rarely see this written about, and I rarely meet a new person I don’t have to explain this to.

Essentially, rich countries (notably the U.S., the E.U. and Japan) have longstanding systems in place to protect their farmers, mostly though massive subsidies (less so in Canada, although we do have very protectionist supply management systems going for dairy and poultry). As a result, poorer countries are restricted from selling their food goods into these wealthy markets.
The Doha talks started in 2001 to try to extend the spirit of globalized free trade into agriculture.

Considering that agriculture is the primary industry in many developing countries, many consider these talks vital to helping the world’s poorest people prosper. And, what’s more, developing countries often have a clear economic advantage over rich nations when it comes to labour-heavy industries such as agriculture.

And yet, the talks have repeatedly failed. In exchange for lowering their subsidies, rich countries are demanding greater access to the markets of developing countries. The issues are of course far more complex than this, but these are the main points emphasized in what little media coverage

So here’s what galls me: rich nations such as the U.S. preach free trade as the way to spread prosperity throughout the world, but they only play the game when they get to win. When poor nations have a competitive advantage, up go the barriers. And yet, do we see this as an injustice to be fought, a contradiction of our beliefs that must be corrected? Of course not. It becomes a bargaining chip. We won’t change the system because it’s wrong; we’ll change it if we get something good in return.

I sympathize with the anti-globalization movement on issues like this. But it’s not globalization I’m against; it’s the injustice of its application. And yet, as a business journalist, how can I address this topic? It’s huge.

It’s far too big and complex a topic to cover in a publication such as BCBusiness, and it really only affects our readership in a very secondary way. But we should all care. We derive our prosperity from global trade, and it’s not right that others should be kept from doing the same.