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World Trade and the Regeneration of Agriculture

Heinrich Böll Stiftung | April 2007

Wolfgang Sachs and Tilman Santarius, with contributions from Sophia Murphy and Daniel De La Torre Ugarte

EcoFair Trade Dialogue Discussion Papers, No. 9 (Heinrich Boell Foundation, in cooperation with Misereor and moderated by Wuppertal Institute)

Today those countries leading in agricultural exports, such as the United States, the European Union, Brazil, and others, have highly industrialized farm systems. Thus, a significant share of agricultural world trade is derived from industrial agriculture. Most of the processed products from industrial agriculture serve the transnational consumer class in the North and South, while large parts of staple foods go into concentrated animal feed operations for industrial livestock production (chapter 2).

Industrial agriculture generates severe environmental impacts. In fact, the impacts mark the intersection of some of the most urgent global environmental problems, such as climate change, land degradation, water shortage, and loss of biodiversity. These impacts in turn destabilize the livelihoods of farmers worldwide who depend on a sound environment for economic, social, and cultural reasons (chapter 3).

Various strategies to de-industrialize agriculture and regenerate it with ecological cycles, such as Resource-Conserving Agriculture, Agroecology, or Certified Organic Agriculture, have contributed to making farming practices less environmentally harmful. However, these strategies mark only the beginning of an ecological reform of the food system. Because they have so far merely focused on farming practices in the field, they leave environmental impacts from later stages in the food system out of sight. Moreover, they risk being outrun by increasing prices and competition pressures from a newly globalized market for organic produce, and the increasing power of food companies (processors, retailers, distributors, etc.) in the trade arena (chapter 4).

As the free play of market forces does not sufficiently ensure the coproduction of the private and common good, such as the protection of the biosphere, it needs to be embedded in a larger institutional context that is designed to secure the public interest. Environmental trade policies in agriculture may be designed in three arenas (chapter 6).

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