With memories of the Uruguay Round's bitter agri- cultural trade disputes just starting to fade, trade negotiators are gearing up for the next round, which is set to begin in 1999. While farm-trade issues are always sensitive - mainly due to the political clout of farmers around the world - trading nations should set ambitious goals for those talks.
That task, already complex, was made even trickier by last November's United Nations ''food summit'' in Rome. The summit concluded with an endorsement of ''sustainable agriculture,'' a policy aimed at preserving traditional agricultural methods and small farming communities. To the extent that this policy - and its near cousin, the organic-farming craze - discourage large-scale, high-yield farming, they are steps in the wrong direction.Why worry about food production now, when the world seems to have beaten economist Thomas Malthus' grim prediction of widespread famine? The reason is that more food, and lots of it, will be needed in the next century, and there are relatively few places on earth available to grow it. What is needed is a combination of more productive use of existing land and - equally important - a trading regime that allows agricultural commodities and food products to move around the globe unhindered.
Even by conservative estimates, the world's population will reach a peak of 8.5 billion in 2035 - a 50 percent increase from today. More to the point, the world's population is growing wealthier, and that means growing demand for high-protein foods, including meats and dairy products. Dennis Avery, a noted expert in world food issues, estimates that output of higher-protein foods will have to expand by 250 percent to 300 percent by the middle of the next century to meet the demand.
Where will all that protein come from, considering that the earth has a finite amount of land suitable for farming? Some of the increase will come from new farm technologies. (See Daniel Greenberg's op-ed article nearby.) Policy-makers also must fight off destructive attacks against genetic engineering of plants and responsible use of pesticides. Family farms and organic farming methods may hold a romantic appeal for politicians and many consumers, but they offer little in the way of farm productivity gains.
Beyond improving yields from existing farmlands, policy-makers should aim for a global trading system that favors efficient producers by ensuring their access to markets. That means dismantling tariffs and other trade barriers that now protect inefficient domestic farmers.
Incredibly, in today's world more than 90 percent of food is supplied domestically. The main reason is not the domestic producers' proximity to local markets or their superior price and quality. Instead, it's due largely to old-fashioned protectionism.
For example, emerging nations that should be avid buyers of milk products, such as India and China, tend to restrict dairy imports to help struggling producers. Thailand and Indonesia, which have many thousands of small farmers, impose high tariffs on a variety of imported fruits to protect those farmers. The United States and the European Union - and most other countries - also subsidize their farmers in many ways, both directly and indirectly. It now falls to the World Trade Organization to replace this patchwork with a more efficient trading system. That will involve converting the myriad forms of national protection into tariffs, and then phasing out the tariffs over time. It also will involve guarding against imposition of new trade barriers parading as national health and safety regulations.
As with the last one, the next round of farm trade talks will be difficult and acrimonious. But few tasks are more important for ensuring that the grim Malthusian vision of mass starvation never comes to pass.