Sean O'Grady: Rich countries have ability to solve problem

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The Independent Online

The world knows the biggest single step it could take to alleviate the food crisis – and has in fact been talking about it at the highest levels for the past eight years. The World Trade Organisation's Doha Round of trade talks that began in 2001 was aimed at liberalising the planet's dysfunctional agricultural markets, with cheaper food for all being a principal benefit.

One reason why so many governments in emerging nations such as the Ukraine, Syria and Egypt are turning away from world markets and embracing barter deals is because those world markets are so hideously distorted by a web of subsidies and tariffs constructed by the developed world to protect our farmers.

The Common Agricultural Policy, barely reformed in recent years, ensures that Europe's agriculture remains primarily committed to protecting the way of life of the French countryside; the American government's protection for dairy products, sugar, tobacco and peanuts has created some of the most formidable trade barriers in the world; the Japanese government has positively encouraged its comically inefficient rice and beef producers to live in the past.

All these misguided policies have deprived the developing world of markets and incomes for decades. Of course nations such as India and Brazil need to do something in return – they could liberalise their service sectors, as the American and Australian governments are loudly demanding, and they might look again at their own agricultural policies.

American, European and indeed Brazilian and Indonesian enthusiasm for biofuels might also be re-examined in the context of the Doha round. So Gordon Brown was right, in his letter to the Japanese Prime Minister, the chair of the G8, to say that the G8, the IMF and the World Bank "should redouble our efforts for a WTO trade deal that provides greater poor country access to developed country markets and cuts distortionary subsidies in rich countries".

He also reminded the advanced economies that they are required to help less developed nations cope with any short-term dislocation that comes about as a result of trade liberalisation, via the so-called "Marrakesh Mechanism". The rules of the WTO state that it must confer "differential and more favourable treatment for developing economies" in trade deals. But a successful Doha round could boost world economic growth and lift millions out of poverty.

Will a deal happen? The outlook is not positive. If an agreement is not reached by this autumn, then abandonment could follow. This is because a new incumbent in the White House will probably want to revisit America's negotiating position, and that would leave the Doha Round "in deep freeze ... and it will have turned to mash by 2010".