The partisan gridlock that continues to grip Washington has frustrated Americans in need of jobs, soured an already struggling economy, and challenged America’s financial credibility around the world. Unfortunately, this impasse on progress is a familiar plight to ambassadors at the World Trade Organization (WTO), which is approaching its tenth anniversary of stalled negotiations of the so-called Doha Round of multilateral trade negotiations. This month, Pascal Lamy, WTO Director-General, described the Doha Round as being in a state of ‘paralysis’ -- a dubious forecast for the upcoming ministerial conference scheduled for December in Geneva, Switzerland. Expectations are low and it appears that Doha will once again fail to bear any fruit. In the midst of this dim prognosis, the time to act is now.

The Doha impasse is perhaps most troubling because of its threat to global food security. A fundamental objective of the Doha Round is to improve the trading prospects of developing countries. Indeed, forging an open and non-distorting multilateral trading system facilitates development, creates economies of scale that attract investment, spurs innovation and efficiencies, and provides more affordable and reliable access to agriculture inputs and food at more stable prices. In the face of these stalled multilateral negotiations, therefore, it is important that the U.S. continue to pursue bilateral and regional trade arrangements that will foster the necessary production of food and provide access to it by the 9 billion people expected to populate the earth by 2050. Swift Congressional passage of free trade agreements with Colombia and Panama and continued U.S. leadership at the regional Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations will be critical to successful deployment of this strategy.

Just before the August recess, Congressional leaders announced that they reached a tentative agreement on legislation to implement trade agreements with Colombia and Panama. According to the World Bank’s 2010 World Development Indicators, Colombia and Panama ranked 37 and 88, respectively, in terms of their gross national incomes in 2008, while the U.S. ranked first.  These trade agreements will largely eliminate tariffs on American agriculture exports to both Columbia and Panama, making food more accessible and more affordable for their populations. The removal of trade barriers will help stimulate needed private sector investment in the developing markets of these neighboring countries. These agreements are also good news for American farmers and ranchers. In 2009, for instance, South Dakota’s estimated $2.3 billion in agricultural exports to Colombia supported almost 20,000 jobs on and off the farm. This agreement could drive those numbers even higher, which is why it is so critical that Congress move quickly to approve these agreements.

The U.S. should build off of these bilateral agreements to enhance its leadership at the regional TPP negotiations. The TPP is an Asia-Pacific regional trade agreement currently being negotiated between the U.S. and eight other partners, including Australia, Brunei, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam. As part of these negotiations, it is important that the U.S. protect intellectual property rights to achieve our goal of encouraging new innovative technologies. Intellectual property rights are a key element to increasing agricultural productivity and promoting global food security. The continued protection of intellectual property rights will encourage more research and development, lead to better, more nutritious food, and facilitate much needed trade. Contrarily, a lack of enforceable intellectual property regimes in developing nations will prevent farmers from obtaining the best, new products, such as those that can improve the nutritional quality of plants and create drought-resistance.

The stakes for global food security have never been higher. We are faced with the daunting challenge of achieving 70 percent greater global food production than today’s level in order to feed an increasing global population. International trade agreements are fundamental to surmounting these obstacles. These agreements not only increase access to affordable food around the world by removing trade barriers, but they can also protect the intellectual property that drives the innovation necessary for closing the global food gap. I have long-supported the WTO as an institution and remain hopeful that our leaders there can break the gridlock to move forward on the development agenda set out when the Doha Round was first launched. In the meantime, advancing trade agreements with Colombia and Panama and on-going TPP negotiations appear to be our best chance of advancing necessary improvements in our global trading system.

About the author: Tom Daschle works for the global law firm DLA Piper and is chair of the DuPont Advisory Committee on Agriculture Productivity and Innovation. The former lawmaker was elected to represent the state of South Dakota in the U.S House of Representatives in 1978 and served four terms. In 1986, the Aberdeen, South Dakota native was elected to the U.S. Senate, becoming minority leader in 1994 and also serving on the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry. He served as U.S. Senate Majority Leader in 2001-2002.

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