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Farmers take to streets as Doha trade talks start in India

More than 10,000 protested the potential lowering of barriers to agricultural trade that would put them in competition with mechanized foreign operations.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 3, 2009

Indian farmers shout slogans at a rally against the World Trade Organization in New Delhi, Thursday. Trade officials from 35 countries are meeting in New Delhi for an informal Ministerial meeting.

Mustafa Quraishi/AP


New Delhi

More than 10,000 Indian farmers Thursday protested the opening day of international trade talks in Delhi, fearful that on top of their burdens of a crippling drought and deep debts, they will face an influx of cheap foreign crops from countries like the United States.

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"We don't get fair prices for our crops now," says Yogendar Singh, a sugar farmer from Uttar Pradesh. "And when this World Trade Organization deal goes through, then we are even more threatened."

With the worldwide economic downturn, some nations – particularly the wealthiest – argue that lowering barriers to global trade in agriculture in the Doha Round would inject a global stimulus and repudiate moves by panicky governments toward protectionism.

"Growth in employment is likely to lag and concern about protecting workers will pressure governments to keep on adding new protectionist measures," says Jeff Schott, a senior fellow with the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington. A Doha deal could create "a buffer against new protectionism."

This issue is back again?

Indian farmers thought they had won this fight in July 2008, when the trade talks collapsed. At the time, India spearheaded developing nations' concerns about opening up global agriculture. Now, India is hosting trade ministers from three dozen nations to try to get the talks back on track.

A research paper from the International Food Policy Research Institute in July found that a Doha deal could prevent the potential loss of $809 billion in the event of protectionist trade wars breaking out. A deal "could therefore act as an efficient multilateral insurance scheme against the adverse consequences of 'beggar-they-neighbor' trade policies," finds the paper.

The Indian government, buoyed by a resounding win at the polls in May, appears to be walking a little more in step with developed nations and the concerns over protectionism's rise.

Anand Sharma, India's new minister of commerce, welcomed the trade ministers by noting that world leaders are agreed on this point: "One of the main threats to a revival of trade flows is the rising protectionist pressures, and continued delay in concluding the Doha Round."

But he cautioned against thinking an agreement is around the corner. "In some instances," he said, "the architecture of a solution is not yet fully in sight."

Tough competition with US farmers