Letter to Ambassador Zoellick on Current Global Agricultural Trade Negotiations, March 24, 2003

Year Published
  • 2014
  • English

March 24, 2003

The Honorable Robert B. Zoellick
United States Trade Representative
600 17th Street, N.W.
Washington, DC 20508

Dear Ambassador Zoellick:

On February 11, 2003, we wrote to you concerning the proposed trade agreement for Central America expressing our concern about the potential effect of a regional trade agreement on the agricultural and rural development of Central America. We now write to you on behalf of the Domestic and International Policy Committees of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops with regard to the current global agricultural trade negotiations taking place under the auspices of the World Trade Organization.

Increased trade and investment can be truly beneficial, creating higher incomes and job opportunities for many people. Trade agreements should be structured in a way that do not just raise economic indicators, but also respects the human dignity of all people affected, especially the poor. We believe a key goal of trade agreements should be poverty reduction. We are deeply involved in the communities that could gain or lose much because of trade agreements. As part of an international church, we also have strong ties to the Church and peoples of Latin America, Africa and other areas of the developing world. Our experience through Catholic Relief Services, which sponsors agricultural development projects in over 80 countries, gives us added insight into the ways economic agreements affect the lives, dignity and rights especially of the millions of poor and disadvantaged in these countries.

We are also deeply committed to strengthening a viable and sustainable US family farm system. In our view, agricultural trade is not just about contractual arrangements or technical rules. Food is not just another commodity but is absolutely necessary for life itself. Our hope is that an international trade agreement will help protect the interests of smaller and more moderate sized farms here in the United States as well as the agricultural interests of poorer people in developing countries.

We endorse the commitment made at the Doha round of trade negotiations in November, 2001 to address specifically the needs of developing countries. Its emphasis on agriculture as a starting point for trade negotiations is wise. The majority of the people in developing countries depend upon farming and rural economic activities for their livelihood. Addressing their needs is critical to the social, political and economic health of their countries. We support the effort to develop a more open global trading system. Our hope is that a WTO agricultural trade agreement can provide genuine opportunities to the people of poorer nations to develop their agriculture and reap the benefits of a fairer trade system.

The special needs of the world's poor farmers and rural workers lead us to support special and differential treatment for developing countries. Current European, Japanese and US subsidies, tariffs and quotas preclude the possibility of a fairer trade system that would open markets for developing countries and provide them with greater authority over their agriculture and rural development. The current subsidy systems of the wealthier nations encourage overproduction leading to dumping the excess supplies on world markets, practices that undercut agricultural production in poorer nations. Even if all the special advantages now enjoyed by the developed countries ended tomorrow, the developing countries would still need special supports to adequately develop their agriculture, feed their people and take advantage of more open markets.

To correct this situation, there is a need to rebalance the relationship between richer and poorer countries. Richer countries need to reduce substantially their use of commodity subsidies and other price distorting trade practices, sooner rather than later. At the same time, poorer countries need greater flexibility in the use of these instruments, including less stringent timetables and, in some circumstances, indefinite retention of support mechanisms. This flexibility is needed to protect their farmers against unfair competition, to provide food security for their citizens and to achieve income security for their farmers and rural workers.

We recognize the complexity of subsidy programs and their historical value to the development of domestic agriculture. Our long-standing concern for the well-being of our US family farmers leads us to support domestic subsidies that are targeted to small and moderate-sized farms, serve the public good, such as soil conservation and cleaner water, and that distort trade as little as possible. Family farms, which comprise the bulk of small and moderate sized farms, contribute greatly to US food security. However, our domestic subsidy system is skewed, providing most of the limited benefits available to a relatively small number of very large producers and large trading companies. Since US farm subsidies mainly benefit larger interests and fail to serve the common good, there should be ample room to substantially reduce them as well as other protective measures that undercut production in developing countries or deny to their farmers access to US markets.

Because of the scandal of so many hungry people in the world, food aid is an essential component of food security. While we encourage developed countries to be as generous as possible, food aid programs should be provided within the larger context of promoting the development of poor countries' food security strategies that help them meet the nutritional and income needs of all people, but especially the poor. Food aid should not be a means for wealthier nations to simply create new markets or to dispose of surpluses that distort local markets. Both emergency and non-emergency food aid should be provided through humanitarian non-governmental organizations in addition to specialized United Nations agencies. Non-government organizations have considerable experience and success in using food aid to promote sustainable agricultural development.

Finally, people have a right to participate in the economic life of society. Given the widening economic inequality between wealthier and poorer nations, it is especially important that governments as well as citizens of developing nations have a full place at the negotiating table with equal stature, rights and opportunities. It is critical that the negotiations be transparent and that those who give voice to the poor, whether in the United States or in developing countries, as well as the governments of developing nations have sufficient information, technical assistance, and time to fully participate in the negotiations. This will help ensure that trade agreements are the product of well-informed public debate.

Agricultural trade is an essential element of today's global economic system. Properly structured, trade in agricultural products can help end hunger and lift millions of poor people out of poverty. This can only be done, however, when these agreements are just and fair for all concerned. As the next round of agricultural trade negotiations takes place at the end of March, we urge you to make fair trade for developing nations the key to a successful international agreement on agricultural trade.

Thank you for your consideration of our views.

Sincerely yours,

Theodore Cardinal McCarrick
Archbishop of Washington
Chairman, Domestic Policy Committee

Most Reverend John H. Ricard, SSJ
Bishop of Pensacola-Tallahassee
Chairman, International Policy Committee