WTO, the Farm Bill, and Developing Countries: A Reading List for the Coming Months

December 05, 2017

Members of the World Trade Organization will be meeting next week in Buenos Aires to discuss the future of agricultural and other trade policies that could have important implications for food security and jobs in developing countries (eventually). And members of the US House and Senate agricultural committees will be meeting through next year to craft a new five-year farm bill that will help shape global markets and determine how much and how quickly US food aid can be delivered to people in desperate need around the world.

Conditions in agricultural markets are not nearly so dire today as they were in the early 2000s, when prices were through the floor, or in 2007-08, when prices doubled and tripled in just a few months. But extreme poverty around the world remains primarily a rural problem and agriculture provides employment for half or more of the people in low- and lower-middle-income countries. And the conditions creating the continuing need for food aid in conflict-ridden areas in Africa and the Middle East are more desperate than at any time in recent memory. That makes the urgency of reforming the US program to make it more responsive and less expensive even greater.

For those interested in these issues and in the implications for the poor and food insecure in developing countries, there are a number of new resources to check out. My recent CGD book, Global Agriculture and the American Farmer: Opportunities for US Leadership, shows why and how agriculture is important to developing countries, and how US (and other) policies affect global agricultural markets. It suggests ways that WTO members could revive their efforts to ensure that these policies are not to the detriment of poor farmers in developing countries. The accompanying brief focuses on a few priorities to make the farm bill less costly for American consumers and taxpayers, as well as the rest of the world, including removal of the in-kind and cargo preference policies hampering food aid deliveries. In other chapters of my book, I focus on US agricultural policies mostly outside the farm bill that undermine global public goods, including biofuels and climate change, and antibiotic use in livestock that contributes to the spread of drug-resistant superbugs.

I also had the pleasure of being a discussant this fall at the launch of two projects hosted by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). In an edited volume for IFPRI, Antoine Bouёt, David Laborde, and colleagues provide incredible depth and detail on how the WTO tried to put disciplines on agricultural protection and support in the Doha Round of trade negotiations, with a focus on implications for developing countries. The authors in this volume also look at issues that emerged as a result of the food price spikes in 2007-08, including the role of export restrictions in exacerbating price volatility and of public food stocks and crop insurance in managing volatility.

The second project, involving IFPRI senior research fellow Joe Glauber (also the former chief economist of the US Department of Agriculture) and coordinated by American Enterprise Institute fellow Vincent Smith, takes an in-depth, and critical, look at a dozen farm bill issues. Among those of most interest for developing countries are papers proposing significant reforms to the food aid program (similar to what I recommend in my book and brief) and elimination of import protection and price support for US sugar cane and beet growers.

If you’re interested in the short versions of these resources, the podcast of my conversation with CGD’s Rajesh Mirchandani about my book is here, and video of the two IFPRI events is here and here. The International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development also has a series of briefings on key WTO ministerial issues here, and will be providing updates from Buenos Aires. 

For more on this topic—my colleague Ian Mitchell has written a post exploring key issues where WTO action next week could help prevent future food price spikes. Lots of food for thought!


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.