By Eve Hamilton. Eve Hamilton edits the Policy Focus series on US-third-world issues .
The Christian Science Monitor
AN agreement on the Uruguay Round of trade negotiations would be a critical step toward improving the economic well-being of farmers in the developing world and saving its deteriorating farm lands. It also would bring environmental and economic benefits to the United States.
Every day millions of poor farmers are forced to make an unenviable decision - protect the productivity of the land for future generations or over-exploit the land in order to feed their children today. Not surprisingly, the environment is generally the loser. The results are devastating and felt worldwide.
Global warming, fueled by deforestation, could cause dramatic weather shifts and a rise in sea levels around the world, both with dire economic consequences. And the loss of biological diversity may destroy the chances of discovering new pharmaceuticals and other useful products.
Environmental degradation in developing countries often occurs because they lack the financial resources to protect land. Governments not only lack the means of teaching farmers to use environmentally sustainable methods, but, desperate for foreign exchange to service debt, they create incentives that encourage deforestation.
A destructive cycle is perpetuated: Land is depleted and abandoned for more productive land, which is itself eventually depleted and abandoned. Sustainable development - using resources responsibly today so they will be available in the future - requires a long-term outlook and adequate financial resources. Many developing countries lack both.
Agricultural trade liberalization, one goal of the Uruguay Round, would open new markets to developing countries. These markets could provide financial resources for developing countries to pursue sustainable development. Liberalization would also benefit the US, which already conducts at least one-third of its trade with developing countries and could export much more to healthier economies.
Removing trade barriers in developed countries would generate significant income for developing countries. US protectionism in the sugar industry alone now costs developing countries roughly $800 million annually. The new revenues could be used to maintain the productivity of land and to prevent permanent land degradation.
TRADE liberalization would also allow many developing countries to diversify their agriculture. Their dependence on environmentally destructive traditional cash crops such as cotton and cassava, as well as cattle ranching, could be reduced in favor of tree crops, fruits, vegetables, cut flowers, and other more environmentally benign products.
The current system of price supports, subsidies, and import barriers in industrial countries distorts global agricultural production and denies financial resources to developing countries. …