The 135-member World Trade Organization has announced that it will start global negotiations on trade in agriculture beginning March 20. There is yet to be agreement on the negotiating format, scope of discussions and time frame. But we do know the talks will take years — and that they will be very contentious.

Make no mistake. The proposed round of world trade negotiations is different from the past seven rounds. The name of the game this time is rights, and Japan finally has the potential to show its stuff as a world leader — if it wants to.

Agriculture was a key element of discussions at the ministerial meetings in Seattle late last year, and it will be a substantial part of the next round. Many will say: “Agriculture, big deal.” But agriculture is extraordinarily important as a barometer of world sentiment about life and well-being on our planet. It has gradually become a major sticking point in trade negotiations, especially in the last one, known as the Uruguay Round. Now, suddenly, concepts of a country’s rights, and of human rights in general, have gradually become recognized as possible legitimate trade issues, making agriculture, curiously, a centerpiece on the negotiating table.

The massive protests in Seattle underline the notion that the next round is really about social issues and not just the traditional tariff and nontariff barriers. This covers many concerns, including developing countries’ desire for a review of some agreements from the past round, environmental issues, labor protection and globalization.

In the case of agriculture, four social issues have received attention: genetically modified organisms, food safety, food security and animal welfare.

The Seattle scenario, and the new one being shaped in Geneva, are extremely important for Japan, which will have its back against the wall during the next several years of WTO negotiations, particularly on agricultural trade. Even before Seattle, U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky indicated that the United States intended to press Japan to open its rice market further.

More interesting — and a point unexplored by the media — is that most of the issues raised at Seattle are fundamentally moral issues. They are about whether the small countries should have an equal voice in negotiations with world leaders, especially with the U.S. They are about quality of life and, in a deeper sense, the meaning of life. They are moral issues because they are about whether a country has a right to protect itself from cultural intrusion, from the homogenization of the world that is being spearheaded, in the eyes of many, by large global corporations. And they are about a country’s right to some level of domestic food production. In the case of agriculture, they are about whether food is somehow different from manufactured products like cars, cups and watches.

Why is agriculture so important to Japan? The answer is because Japan’s food self-sufficiency rate (the percent of calories from human food produced domestically) has fallen continuously over the past four decades and now stands at just 40 percent. If Japan is unsuccessful in aborting probable moves by the Cairns group in the next round, the rate could drop to 30 percent or less in a decade.

From a strictly economic viewpoint, no matter how successful Japan is in agricultural restructuring as a result of revisions to the new Basic Agricultural Law, the rate will continue to fall unless WTO negotiations yield an internationally recognized policy that a country has the right to set some level of domestically produced food.

I would argue that Japan does indeed have a right to set some minimum level of domestic food production, that the new round of WTO negotiations is the appropriate format in which to conduct discussions on this issue, and that it is high time the WTO negotiations became a forum for trade reform in the broad context of world development rather than just narrowly focusing on reducing tariff and nontariff barriers.

The issue of rights to some nationally determined basic level of food production really refers to the term “food security,” which means many things depending on the country, the situation and the point in time. For example, Japan is quite different from a very poor developing country. Japanese expect, and have a right to expect, a stable supply of their everyday favorite foods. This means safe foods prepared in the way they want them, how they want them and when they want them.

The situation is different from, say, that of oil, which Japan must import. Is food different from manufactured goods? That is the main question in the food self-sufficiency issue. People in many countries have never thought about food self-sufficiency ratios. The U.S., for example, is a net exporter, so why would anyone there be concerned with sufficiency ratios? In fact, each country negotiates according to its comparative advantage — and agriculture is a major one for the U.S., especially as its manufacturing advantage declines.

Informal surveys in the U.S. reveal overwhelming support — even among rice farmers — for the notion that any country, including Japan, has the right to some basic level of domestic food production. If this is true, then just who is so determined that Japanese agriculture, the last great bastion of trade barriers, be liberated from the shackles of protectionism? I believe it is not the American people, but rather a handful of trade officials whose jobs depend on showing Congress in an election year that they are doing something about the greatest U.S.-Japan trade imbalance ever.

The facts show that further opening of Japanese agriculture would have almost no impact on the U.S. trade imbalance with Japan. Even if rice imports were to grow to 40 percent, and the U.S. commanded half of that, the deficit would only be reduced by about 1 percent.

What does all this mean for Japan’s approach to the next WTO ministerial meeting?

I believe that the “multifunctionality” arguments by the government of Japan, which include the role of farmers as stewards of the land, the importance of farms in flood control and preservation of natural beauty, have appeal. Japan has a strong ally in Europe and among many developing countries for a multifunctionality approach.

An even more compelling argument for Japan, however, is that food production is not like a factory. Once farmers are gone, valuable skills are lost.

The food-security aspect is compounded by inherent and increasing dangers in the growth of world food trade. For example, global warming is triggering greater variability every year in crop production. Modern plant breeding, and now cloning and other techniques, have produced wonders. The down side is a that a reduced genetic pool leads to long-term risk from diseases and pests, as well as producer dependence on a few transnational companies for seeds.

Japanese politicians have to make a decision about agriculture. The international climate is the best it ever has been for Japan to just stand up and say that everyone has a right to food security and that it is up to each country to decide what is best for it. Why shouldn’t much of the discussion be about rights, duties and generally ethical issues? Why not discuss the pros and cons of globalization by large multinational corporations, many of which are agriculture-oriented. These are legitimate trade issues.

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