Thursday, November 03, 2005

Fate of the Farmers in Balance

The next round of trade talks must remove subsidies that are crushing poor farmers

YaleGlobal -- The Trade Ministers of the 148 members of the WTO are a diverse group. Their December meeting in Hong Kong will place America’s Congressional veteran Rob Portman next to Princess Lubna of the United Arab Emirates. The erudite Mari Pangestu, an Indonesian development economist turned Cabinet Minister, is side by side with Ireland’s ex-Mayor of Cork Micheal Martin; Cambodia is next to Canada and the EU next to Fiji. But as diverse as they may be, the Ministers have a common mission. Their predecessors in the 1990s eliminated tariffs on semiconductor chips, furniture and airplanes; this group is charged with concluding an agricultural trade reform plan, designed to open markets overall for farmers and in particular to cut the subsidies, tariffs and quotas of the WTO’s wealthy members.

Such meetings often bring more heat than light to trade policy. From outside the halls we get video footage of colorful demonstrations. From inside, meanwhile, comes a steady buzz of impenetrable jargon, as the Ministers debate blue and amber boxes, mode of transmission, Swiss tariff formulae and the like. Onlookers have trouble understanding any of it. But as demonstrators chant and negotiators drone, keep two products in mind to illustrate what the world could be, and what it is.

The first is an obscure product called noug. Grown in the Ethiopian highlands as a staple crop for centuries, noug has only recently been traded on world markets. It is a small black seed, used by Ethiopian farm families to yield the oil that fries their traditional spongy injera bread. Noug is also, however, the world’s most expensive and glamorous birdseed. Its high oil content makes it irresistible to the small, energetic songbirds American birdwatchers love, as well as indispensable to Ethiopian frying pans. Five years ago Ethiopians – amazed to find foreigners willing to buy the stuff simply to throw it away to birds – began selling. As noug grows nowhere outside Ethiopia and South Asia, it faces no tariff or subsidy. A hundred tons a day now flows easily from the dock at Djibouti to the ports of Baltimore and New York, and thence to American pet stores and backyard bird feeders. The product now accounts for a third of Ethiopian exports to the United States and brings in some unexpected cash to the upland farmers.

Imports of "noug" or "Niger seed" from Ethiopia:

2000: 0 tons
2004: 27,000 tons


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