Dorothy and Toto went all the way from Kansas to Cancún to meet the wizard of the World Trade Organization last month. They were amazed to discover that the wizard was all smoke and noise and had no power other than what they and their uptight and worried friends like the tin man and the lion who had no courage granted to the wizard. Few people know that the original Wizard Of Oz, by L. Frank Baum, pretended to be a children's story but was written to inspire the Populist farm revolt coming out of the American Midwest of the late 1800s, when organizers urged farmers to "raise less corn and more hell." Perhaps the most radical book ever written in North America, its deep insight into the nature of power provided an accurate prophecy of what could happen to the seemingly all-powerful World Trade Organization as soon as it was confronted.
The WTO has dictated the world's food and trade policies for almost a decade. But the collapse of negotiations at its September meetings in Cancún exposed the WTO as having no power except that which the leaders of poor countries give it. The talks collapsed simply because there was no consensus to proceed.
Such a leadership vacuum in world food and trade policy has not existed since the end of the second world war. Those who positioned themselves as critics of the WTO are now called upon to present their alternatives, not just their complaints - which perhaps explains why an eerie silence has followed the collapse of the Cancún talks.
The meeting had an overly ambitious agenda of cooling out the leaders of poor countries, who'd been promised a "development round" of talks that would deal with their ever-deepening poverty while advancing the industrialized world's agenda of global privatization of key resources and economic institutions. Three forces brought this agenda to naught.
First, the WTO lost intellectual and ethical credibility among normally pro-free-trade "opinion makers" in the developed nations, who reeled at the brazen hypocrisy of demanding that poor countries open their markets to free competition from rich countries while rich countries protected their markets and subsidized their farm exporters. In a typical year, the wealthy countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) donate $52 billion U.S. in aid to poor countries, while bankrupting farmers in the same countries by forcing them to compete against farmers bankrolled by $311 billion U.S. in subsidies.
The dirty secret of world food trade, more disgraceful than free trade hypocrisy, is that there's more food in the world than anyone knows what to do with. That's why all governments subsidize exports or try to protect their producers against imports. There's so much abundance or overproduction that the price point veers toward zero. Even if all subsidies were banned, according to a new study released in Cancún by the University of Tennessee-based Agriculture Policy Analysis Center, the prices farmers everywhere receive for food would not go up more than a nickel for a bushel of grain or more than 5 per cent for meat.
On the eve of the meetings, the New York Times editorialized against "the rigged trade game" that resulted in "harvesting poverty around the world," and Canada's Globe and Mail bemoaned the lopsided playing field "designed to protect the few from free and open competition that would benefit so many.' The United Nations' Kofi Annan and the Food and Agricultural Organization, normally staunch defenders of expanding trade, called on rich countries to give the poor a break. Rights and Democracy, the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development, funded by the Canadian government, issued a statement saying that human rights to food and dignity override trade.
The second force came from poor countries themselves, backed by leaders of "civil society" and volunteer groups around the world. Populist presidents of Brazil, Venezuela and Argentina organized a Group of 21, including India and China - thereby representing a majority of the world's population and farmers. The alliance with global social activists happened smoothly, in part because Brazil's government had long sponsored annual anti-globalization "social forums" giving a warm welcome to leaders of NGOs.
The third force was the governments of wealthy countries, which were prepared to see the WTO project collapse rather than concede to an organization in which every government has an equal vote. U.S. reps came to Cancún already prepared to switch horses midstream and trade with a coalition of the willing who'd sign on to bilateral trade agreements modelled on NAFTA.
Picking up the pieces will be challenging. "Get ready for more rhetoric about the power of markets and competition to fix the farm crisis," Elbert van Donkersgoed of the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario warned when word came of the Cancún meeting's collapse.
Making it easier or fairer for farmers in poor countries to produce for and sell to wealthy consumers in the First World does little to solve the abundance "problem." Nor does it help the world's 840 million people who go to bed hungry every night and the 150,00o children who die every day from malnutrition - more disgraceful, albeit ignored, realities than the hypocrisy of trade subsidies.
Abundance beckons us to shape a new world food system by retooling it to meet objectives of human and planetary health rather than trade.
"Replacing subsidies that promote overproduction with conservation payments that preserve the quality of the land would allow worthy farmers in rich nations to survive,' an inspired editorial in the Salt Lake Tribune argued during the Cancún talks. "If the focus doesn't change, the rich nations' agricultural policies will continue to make people hungry.' That is the frightening truth that Dorothy and Toto discovered at Cancún.