Romanticism in the WTO: The voice of the farmer

Lewis attended the 2012 WTO Public Forum in Geneva where he represented The Australian National University. He is studying a Bachelor of Asia-Pacific Studies and also works for The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry.


The World Trade Organization’s current Doha Development Agenda round of multilateral trade-liberalising negotiations has, after eleven years of slow-paced negotiations, reached an impasse. This is in spite of predictions that concluding the round would lead to global economic growth, benefitting both the developed and developing worlds. There are a multiplicity of reasons behind the impasse; however, this paper argues that the major reason for the deadlocked negotiations is the continued agricultural protectionism in much of the developing world which is fueled by overpowered domestic agricultural lobbies. These lobbies, apart from having significant economic influence, are equipped with a natural power over the public: they have access to emotive rhetoric charged with irrational arguments born out of humanity’s emotional responses to agriculture. This is a power which is largely unrecognised in the economic and political discussion surrounding multilateral trade. This paper ultimately supports wider recognition of the power of agricultural rhetoric in order to better rationally address the issues of agriculture in trade.


Along with water and shelter, food is an obvious, essential element to human survival; its importance is rooted deeply in our base instincts. From hunting for prehistoric animals, to hunting for bargains in the local supermarket, there has never been a time in which the production and consumption of food has not been at the forefront of the collective human consciousness, pervading many of our daily rituals. Therefore, as food is such a fundamental and consistent influence, it cannot go unmentioned in the cultural products of humanity; and so we can see it form the subject of a plethora of film, literature and art. Moreover, it is one of the only forms of inspiration that seems to transcend all cultures and creeds, inspiring the cultural creations of every society. As you will have observed above, from Bashō, to ‘Bullocky’ and ‘Below’, the social, spiritual and cultural role played by food and agriculture has been artfully analyzed for centuries by writers of every nationality. However, in this writing, food, in all forms, is seen to move beyond its fundamental function as a simple source of fuel for humanity, and instead takes on the role of forming our national and individual identities. Culturally, we begin to define ourselves through food, after all, ‘we are what we eat’. However, within the arenas of modern politics and economics, this unquantifiable cultural undercurrent, this heightened reverence for food, and therefore agriculture, is not successfully taken into consideration; it can’t be measured or completely understood and so it is often discounted. Consequently, in trade negotiations, especially in a multilateral context, food and other agricultural products are treated like simple, tradable commodities, much like any other product. This is a distinct failing of the current system. Agriculture means much more to people than simply a method by which a tradable commodity is created; food and its production is so significant to our cultural and individual identity that it holds much more power over us than any other tradable product. Thus with this in mind, this paper aims to demonstrate the significance of the cultural power of agriculture within the context of multilateral trade, aiming to bear out the hypothesis that the agricultural lobby holds more power than is economically reasonable due to the emotivity of food production, and ergo is impacting the progression of multilateral trade negotiations. This will be done in three logical steps: firstly, the link between the current impasse in the Doha Development Round of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and domestic agricultural issues will be highlighted; secondly, the power of the agricultural lobby will be addressed in practical, economic terms; thirdly, the impact of ‘farm-rhetoric’ on consumers in developed nations will be demonstrated through examples from the US and Japan. This paper aims to show the importance of agriculture, not just economically, but culturally.  

Linking the Doha Impasse and Agriculture

Before the power of the domestic agricultural lobby can be successfully unpacked, it is important to contextualize that discussion by first demonstrating the significance of agriculture in global trade; before the cause can be analyzed, the effect needs to be substantiated. The WTO claims that of its three key areas of operation, its central, core function is to provide a forum for international trade negotiation1. This function is currently manifested in the Doha Development Agenda (DDA) negotiations, which were initiated in November 20012; however, initial progress was glacially paced and undermined by several deadlocks in negotiations, and since 2008 it has been widely acknowledged that the round had lost all momentum. Finally, in 2011, at the Eighth Ministerial Conference (MC8), there was general agreement that the DDA had reached an impasse3. The reasons behind this impasse are naturally multifaceted and complex, with arguments that it is due to revival of the ‘principal supplier’ approach4, pressures stemming from the economic crisis5, and concerns over the issue of intellectual property rights6. Nevertheless, both scholarly and governmental commentary clearly and consistently identify a lack of willingness to commit to agricultural liberalization by developed nations as the main impediment to the DDA negotiations. Protectionist measures have long been employed by developed nations to artificially raise the competitiveness of their agricultural sectors in domestic markets; most notoriously the EU’s Common Agriculture Policy and the US Farm Bill are responsible for generous farming subsidies, amounting to over a third of the global total7. In previous multilateral trade modalities, under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), waivers allowing formal and informal restrictions on agriculture were employed to protect the agricultural sectors of developed nations8. In Doha, however, for the sake of engaging the previously marginalized developing nations, there was a mandate to substantially reduce agricultural protection. Modalities to this effect have yet to be reached. In fact the EU and US collaborated in both the Cancun and Potsdam ministerial meetings to push for concessions by developing nations in the areas of services and non-agricultural market access (NAMA)9 whilst refusing to entertain serious concessions on agriculture. Ironically, there was a joint ministerial statement at the conclusion of MC8 which outlined a ‘pledge against protectionism’10. This statement, however, specified only a commitment to refrain from raising barriers to trade, rather than a committing to lower them. It is this sort of empty posturing by WTO nations which tries to distract from the real issue, which is the significant ongoing subsidies supporting the agricultural producers of developed nations, amounting to $US221 billion11 per year, over 18 percent of global agricultural value added12. Thus, it can clearly be seen that, on a global scale, these subsidies are viewed as simply impediments to the conclusion of the DDA. The World Bank estimates that, with the agreed reduction of tariffs on manufactured goods, combined with the elimination of subsidies and non-tariff barriers, and a modest 10 percent to 15 percent reduction in global agricultural tariffs, would allow developing countries to gain nearly $350 billion in additional income by 2015, and developed countries roughly $170 billion within the same time frame13. However, this future is currently unreachable due to the developed nations’ refusal to reduce their support of domestic agriculture. Ismail blames the continued seeking of agricultural exemptions from the DDA negotiations on ‘sensitive [domestic]agricultural sectors’14. However, the question still remains, what does ‘sensitive’ mean in real terms?  

Self-Perpetuating Economic Power of the Agricultural Lobby

Now that the international political situation has been established in terms of the impact of protectionist measures on global trade negotiations, the influencing domestic factors can be discussed. The situation in each developed nation is, naturally, different; the extent to which protectionist practices pervade agricultural policy is dependent on historical, sociological and ideological factors. Although there are some logistical factors which indirectly influence agricultural policy that are common to many major democracies, such as the disproportionately low population of rural electorates due to rapid urbanization15 and thus their increased voting power, these flaws in the implementation of the democratic political system do not seem to account for the heightened influence of agricultural interests over domestic politics. There appears to be two clear ways in which the agricultural sector directly influences the decisions of government: firstly, on a superficial level, through the power of the political agricultural lobby; and, secondly, on a more fundamental level, through the power of ‘farm-rhetoric’ and its ability to foment an impassioned public response, which in turn influences government. In regards to the overpowered nature of the domestic agricultural lobbies, this issue can be illustrated in a number of ways. A prime example is the comparative fiscal power agricultural lobby. In the United States, the agricultural lobby is disproportionately large when compared to agriculture’s place in terms of gross economic output; although in 2011 the agricultural sector accounted for only 1.2 percent of gross US GDP16, it equated to 3.8 percent of total lobbying spending for that year17, that is over three times the influencing power than should be afforded a sector of its size. However, it is hardly a shock that the agricultural sector has more to spend on lobbying activities due to the higher income, greater wealth and lower expenditures in farm households in comparison to the average US household18, figures which would filter to the representation for those households. In fact, the US government’s program of direct subsidies to farms, predominantly large-scale farms, has been dubbed ‘America’s largest corporate welfare program’19. These overly generous subsidies are maintained through careful lobbying activities conducted by such groups as the powerful American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) and the National Farmers Union (NFU). These organizations have a high public profile buoyed by regular media appearances and rallies, such as the recent ‘Farm Bill Now’ rallies in Washington20. This means that a they hold considerable influence over the agricultural policy of the US21 due to their ability to mobilize people in order to give their political interests credence. Thus, their power is often seen as self-perpetuating due to the large government support received by farmers, which in turn allows them to lobby government for continued support. However, the real point of interest in the workings of theagricultural lobbies such as the AFBF and the NFU, and also other bodies globally, is their use of ‘farm-rhetoric’ to instill a passion in the general public; this means that their sphere of influence extends beyond their membership and draws upon members of urban communities who otherwise would not be as invested in the lives of farmers.  


This ‘farm-rhetoric’, it could be said, is the true fuel of any agricultural lobby’s campaign. Although romanticization of rural landscapes and lifestyles is commonly discussed in literary and cultural studies, it is often ignored in a political context. This is a mistake; the power of such rhetoric to influence public opinion is considerable. At the ‘Farm Bill Now’ rally, which was widely reported in the media, head of the AFBF, Bob Stallman, called the nation to action with his statement that the Farm Bill was ‘for our farm and ranch families, their communities and for our nation’22. This connection between the national interest and the interest of farmers is repeatedly made in the campaign, striking at the heart of the voting public’s concerns: their own survival. The Farm Bill Now manifesto, available online, claims that the Farm Bill is essential for the ‘necessities of life’, incorporating such emotive ideas as providing healthy food for schoolchildren and families in need23. These associations with such powerful themes like ‘hungry families’ and ‘schoolchildren’ speak to every individual. Farm lobbies can easily associate their industry with very emotive concepts; however, beyond school children and families, rhetoric often enters the realm of nationalism. In the heated political debate surrounding changes to the Japanese agricultural system, national identity has often been discussed. Although the situation in Japan is distinctly different in terms of the raw competitiveness of the industry, and the way in which farms receive assistance, the language used to motive farmers and the general population is along the same lines as the rhetoric employed elsewhere globally. There seems to be a significant, although often unspoken, fear of a lack of self-efficiency which is cemented in a pervasive agricultural nationalism. Although this theory of the emotive ties between agriculture and nationalism has not been explored in modern academic literature, it has been observed in the past24, and is definitely present in the rhetoric of agricultural lobbies. Although less vocal on Japan’s involvement with the WTO, Japan’s Central Union of Agricultural Co-operatives (JA-Zenchu) lobbied passionately against Japan’s involvement in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) regional free trade agreement. The JA-Zenchu official statement on the TPP claimed ‘The most important things for human beings - our lives and environment - will be made hollow and will be entrusted to foreign countries’25. This response epitomizes the ease with which ‘farm-rhetoric’ can easily stray into the realms of xenophobia and nationalism. In caparison to other sectors, including the service industries in the US or Japan’s large electronic good industry, which provide a significantly higher proportion of employment, the small agricultural sectors have greater abilities to tap-into public emotion. However, for the sake of maintaining a level of self-sustainability, Japanese consumers pay a higher price for their food. Agricultural tariffs of almost 800 percent on rice, 360 percent on butter and 328 percent on sugar26 means that 24 percent of the average Japanese household’s expenditure is spent on food27. To compare that figure to a relatively liberal agricultural nation, Australia, who’s average household spends only 15 percent of expenditure on food28. Thus, the end effect of successful lobbying by the radical JA-Zenchu by utilizing ‘farm-rhetoric’ is to create an uncompetitive agricultural market, and thus this is to the ultimate economic detriment of the Japanese consumer. However, there is a sentiment within the Japanese public, and in other nations, that supporting the maintenance of heavy agricultural subsidies and tariffs is somehow a burden they should be willing to bear for the benefit of the nation. This, it can be argued, is ultimately connected to the deep-rooted, widely-held belief in the ‘farm rhetoric’ expressed above, manifesting itself in either talk of individual survival or the survival of the nation as a whole.  


Agriculture is often treated as though it exists in a similar vacuum to other sectors such as NAMA and the service industries, however, as can be seen above, it is distinctly different in its cultural power. This means that agricultural policies in particular are often designed ‘with a specific political purpose in mind’29 such as the Democratic Party of Japan’s ex-leader Ichiro Ozawa’s vision for agricultural reform. However, what directs the debate surrounding agriculture away from the realms of pragmatism and economic liberalism is the immense political and cultural power of the agricultural lobby. This lobby is, naturally, influenced by it’s own economic interests; JA-Zenchu in Japan and the AFBF in the US, in different ways respectively, gain economically from agricultural protectionist policies; whether its by taking a cut of the profits made from artificially expensive agricultural products in Japan30, or the direct agricultural subsidies received by federation members in the US, the agricultural lobbies have vested economic interests in the current system. However, the history of political and cultural revolution dictates that these practices would be halted if they were perceived to be detrimental by the general public. This has yet to occur; the protectionist policies still stand. This, as can be seen above, is partly due to the persuasive rhetoric employed by the agricultural lobbies, tapping-into both the basic human instinct of self-preservation and a greater sense of national pride. This ultimately impedes multilateral negotiation and the global movement towards liberalization, as can be seen in the current impasse in the DDA negotiations of the WTO. Thus, to successfully move forward with the opening of agricultural markets, especially to developing nations, and to combat any domestic injustice in the current agricultural paradigms in developed nations, the power of the agricultural lobbies needs to be addressed, not just in terms of their economic power, but in terms of their often misguided cultural clout. This is a challenge for most democratic governments due to their need for support from the agricultural sector, and the general population, during election periods. However, with better education in terms of the global benefits of further international economic integration, consumers can possibly interact more rationally with agricultural politics and prevent the consumer and the taxpayer from carrying unnecessary, and often unfair financial burden. This is not to say that governments should not employ economically and culturally rational agricultural projectionist policies; decisions to liberalize or not should be made with the backing of sound reasoning. Nevertheless, for this sound reasoning to have the best penetrative effect on agricultural policies it is essential that it is not clouded by baseless and purely emotive rhetoric from the agricultural lobbies.