How to save Doha with soybeans

Free trade and biofuels: Ted Turner rocks the house in Geneva

Published September 25, 2006 7:39PM (EDT)

I want to vote for Ted Turner for president ... of the world. Turner gave a speech at the World Trade Organization's Public Forum this morning in Geneva that is equal parts inspiring and enlightening, and cuts right to the core of what this blog cares about. It is, in short, a program for making the world work.

The purpose of the speech is to call for the resuscitation of the Doha trade talks -- the so-called development round. Turner, who says he's been a "free trader" since high school, rightly pins the blame for the trade round's failure on the resistance of the U.S. and E.U. to cut agricultural subsidies. The intractable problem, he says, is that the developed world produces too much agricultural product, which depresses prices, which means that farmers in the developed world can't make a profit without subsidies, and farmers in the developing world can't make a profit, period. But politicians in the developed world will not end subsidies, because they would quickly find their own terms in office ended by disgruntled farmers.

Turner offers a solution: biofuels. If the problem with agricultural production as it stands now is that there is not enough demand to match supply, then the problem with biofuels is the exact opposite: not enough supply to match demand. And that, says Turner, "is what I would call a business opportunity." Turner proposes that the current system of agricultural subsidies be phased out and replaced by incentives for biofuel production.

"This gives developed countries a chance to end the stalemate over agricultural subsidies by giving farmers incentives to grow biofuels and by giving consumers incentives to use them. If -- over the next ten years -- WTO nations adopt policies that support an entirely new market in bio-based energy -- and if production expands to provide 15 to 20 percent of global fuel needs, the market in global agriculture could double or triple in value. In this market of unmet demand, the effect of government incentives for biofuel production will be totally different from normal crop subsidies. The unmet demand for transportation fuel is almost endless. This guarantees that support for domestic production will not displace foreign competitors or reduce the prices paid abroad. Farmers will be getting their income from the market, not from the government."

Biofuel's potential to address energy needs has come under sustained criticism from the left -- there are worries that the rain forest will be replaced by soybean or palm oil plantations, or that the whole push is being orchestrated by American agribusiness companies looking for new ways to exploit the world's poor farmers. But perhaps no critique is as emotionally charged as the argument that crops for fuel will displace crops for food, thus even further imperiling the livelihoods of the world's poorest. But Turner, whose entire speech is hinged on the moral imperative of improving the lot of the developing world, has no patience for this alleged quid pro quo.

"By investing in biofuels, developing countries can start solving these problems. They can produce their own domestic transportation fuels, cut their energy costs, improve public health, create new jobs in the rural economy, and ultimately, build export markets. By converting part of their output of food and fiber to fuel, they will be entering a market with higher prices and rising demand, and are more likely to attract the kind of foreign investment that can modernize their agricultural practices -- and increase their food production as well."

"This is a critical point, because there should be no food vs. fuel debate. We can absolutely produce both -- all that's required is investment. Economic growth, especially in rural areas, will help developing countries meet their food needs more easily. The answer to hunger is not more food, it is less poverty.

Turner's speech is passionate, smart and, above all, dedicated to making the world a better place for everyone. Read it.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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