The food industry must have watched the riots in Seattle as the WTO met with trepidation. Unless the sharper political minds of the USA and Europe get to grips with at the events in Seattle those riots will affect the food industry, because the WTO’s trade discussions directly affect the growth of world food trade. Whenever they meet in the years ahead, wherever they stage the next gathering of all the WTO’s member countries, and whoever is the Director General of this august organisation, a riot is what awaits the WTO if it doesn’t get its act together.

Some of the graffiti seen at Seattle included;
– Ding Dong the round is dead!
– Turtles and teamsters united at last
– Your money isn’t worth my pride
– I want to know if I’m eating dolphin
– Don’t patent my genes
– Corporate gain, Global pain
– Fair trade is not a fringe position

Get the message? The good citizens of Seattle did and these were just some of the slogans and graffiti that they voted as “best of the protest”. After the slogans, what does it all mean for the food industry?

There is no doubt that the Europeans who made the trip, and the European press generally, feel that the battle in Seattle laid down a marker against the approach of the Americans and “free traders”. Much of the European comment is about a moral victory for Europe. Another paradigm has yet to be fully articulated but the Europeans feel that the broader agenda that they proposed before the conference was much more in tune with popular feeling than the purist approach suggested by the US and the Cairns Group. Furthermore, the Millennium round did not get started in Seattle and one EU insider noted that this was the best deal on offer for the EU – certainly better than the agreement that the US was pushing in the later stages of the Conference.

This last observation will not be a surprise to some. When it became obvious that 30,000 protesters, 1300 NGOs, and the interest of the world’s media would have an impact on the week’s agenda I had thought that the US would move sharply to seek a compromise. But it didn’t. The gap was too large for politicians of the stature of Bill Clinton to bridge. Indeed, his comments at the conference about the need to incorporate labour standards in the WTO only inflamed the developing countries and encouraged them to feel that the event was just a stitch up between the developed countries. But if Bill was out of touch with the developing countries at the conference, the US Trade Secretary Ambassador Barshefsky showed no sign of being from the same planet. Her lack of sensitivity was described by one EU observer as “resembling King Herod’s behaviour in a school kindergarten”.

Although another trade round wasn’t launched the EU had to agree to the re-start discussions on agriculture in January 2000 (this was mandated as part of the GATT’s Uruguay Round anyway). However, the Chairman of the Agriculture Group struck out the EU’s request for a “multifunctional” role of agriculture and this didn’t please either the EU or Japan. It did please the US and the Cairns Group. The EU Farm Commissioner, Franz Fischler, observed after the end of the conference that the US and Cairns Group would be making a big mistake if they assumed that the agriculture text agreed in Seattle was the only basis for future discussions in agriculture. The EU is likely to stick very closely to the text agreed at the end of the Uruguay Round if its requests for a wider agenda are ignored. So don’t hold your breath for any amazing breakthroughs in these agriculture discussions. And delays on GMO labelling and clarifying the position of biotechnology additives will also occur – which isn’t good news for the food industry.

The next WTO Ministerial is in Qatar at the end of 2001 and this was supposed to be the mid-term review for the next trade round. If a wider round of talks can be launched that date still looks relevant but the mutterings in Europe are that the WTO now has to reform itself before the next trade round can start. Europe’s politicians feel that they escaped the wrath of the protesters in Seattle and they will not want to risk being tarred with the same brush as the Americans in a future Ministerial meeting. So changes in the WTO are a must. All this is bound to divert energy and attention away from the ongoing agriculture discussions and the arguments about the scope of the next round. For the EU, there will be no incentive to have any meaningful discussion about agriculture until the GATT “Peace Clause” expires at the end of 2003. This is probably now the date to ring in your diary. By this date the next US President will be settled in office (with a new Trade Secretary), the EU will be close to the date for the next enlargement of the EU, and the WTO will have reinvented itself. The pressures to obtain deals and the personalities who can handle these tortuous negotiations will (hopefully) coincide positively around this time. Otherwise, pack your riot gear for Qatar.

That’s my readout on Seattle but I’ve got to finish with my favourite slogan seen on a protester’s banner last week:

WTO: do your moms know what you’re up to?

Dr John Strak