Agriculture and the WTO: Towards a New Theory of International Trade Regulation

By MacLaren, Donald | Rural Society, April 2011 | Go to article overview

Agriculture and the WTO: Towards a New Theory of International Trade Regulation


MacLaren, Donald, Rural Society


Agriculture and the WTO: Towards a New Theory of International Trade Regulation Fiona Smith LLM ISBN 978 1 84542 490 9; 2009; xii + 172 pages; Edward Elgar, Cheltenham, UK

International agricultural trade has long been described by agricultural economists as an 'intractable problem'. From a narrow economic perspective, there exist relatively straightforward ways to solve this problem but to a large extent these have proven to be politically infeasible. When the problem is viewed in the wider context of economic development, political economy, food security, livelihood security, environmentally sustainable development and human rights, we begin to understand why these straightforward economic solutions tend to evaporate.

The main title of this book prompts the question: why another study on agriculture and the WTO when there exist several already? The answer lies in the author's claim: 'This is a book of ideas. It aims to challenge our existing assumptions about the nature of the problem of international agricultural trade.' (p. xi) In this she succeeds admirably, although I am not convinced that what emerges can be described as a theory as suggested in the sub-title. The principal insight provided is that, unlike conventional approaches to the problem, i.e., regarding it as a 'series of interconnected problems' (p. x) that involve linear and permanent solutions, the approach needs to be altered to recognise that there is only one problem but one that is polycentric or multifaceted with 'several interlocking strands.' (p. x) These strands represent the various facets or dimensions of international agricultural trade and are likened to a spider's web. The consequence of defining the problem as polycentric is that there is no unique solution to, or resolution of, it; the best that can be achieved is management of the problem. The context in which these strands are defined is the regulation of agricultural trade - 'it considers the rules, the economics and the underlying assumptions of the WTO regulatory scheme.' (p. 3)

The theme of polycentrism is developed from chapter 1, which deals with the regulation of international agricultural trade in the WTO, to the final chapter, which deals with the language used in the Agreement on Agriculture and in the draft modalities document of July 2008. In between these endpoints, there is a philosophical chapter (chapter 2) in which the author explores various perceptions of the problem using concepts such as constructional rationalism, the role of knowledge and the role of coherence. These concepts illustrate the need for the term 'polycentric'.

Having challenged the reader with these concepts, the author then develops two ways through which to view disagreements amongst the Members of the WTO over the international regulation of agriculture. The idea of cultural divergence is developed in chapter 3 and illustrated through the market access pillar of the Agreement on Agriculture. Again, readers are asked to confront their preconceived opinions: in this instance on what constitutes agriculture and what constitutes trade. Market access is drawn upon in chapter 4 to illustrate polycentrism, using the text of the Agreement on Agriculture. The analogy of the spider's web is used to good effect to demonstrate that, given the different interpretations of market access and the country settings in which these definitions are to be found, inevitably there can be no single solution and, therefore, market access will remain a permanent feature in the WTO. …

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