State Leaders Stymied On Agriculture Agenda At WTO Meeting

Iowa governor Tom Vilsack should probably avoid black cats, broken mirrors and walking under ladders. Just months after avoiding serious injury in the devastating Taiwan earthquake in October, Vilsack was nearly assaulted by protesters at last week's World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle. An Iowa state trooper pulled the governor away from the mob, which then attacked a Washington state trooper also escorting Vilsack.

Vilsack was just one of several state officials who are still picking up the pieces after attending the meetings, which were transformed by the violent clashes between police and protesters from a story buried in the business section to a prominent story splashed across the front page.

The protests resulted in at least 500 arrests, spurred a 24-hour downtown curfew and forced Washington governor Gary Locke to mobilize the National Guard and pull an additional 300 state police troopers from their assignments in other parts of the state.

In the midst of the turmoil, state leaders, especially those from agricultural states, attempted to use the meetings as a way to open new markets in the international economy and lower existing tariffs on exported agricultural products.

North Dakota Governor Ed Schafer and several other officials traveled to the meeting to promote the state's agricultural interests to an international market. They met with Australian and Canadian officials to discuss farm subsidies in an international context. While they emerged from that meeting with a general agreement, the North Dakotans' meetings with European Union and Japanese officials did not fare as well.

U.S. Senator Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat and Senate minority leader, warned that European and Asian history and tradition leads those countries to be wary of relying on imported food.

"It's more personal when it comes to food. They've made it a national mantra not to be dependent on other countries for food," Daschle said in a press conference.

Nonetheless, officials from agriculture states pressed their agenda and tried to articulate their goals to constituents at home suddenly bombarded by images of riot police firing tear gas into crowds of protesters.

"One of the real questions that people ask is, what is your reason for going and what's the likelihood of something coming out?' Our goal here is to try and get our agenda heard," North Dakota Wheat Commission administrator Neal Fisher told the Bismarck Tribune.

Fisher and U.S. Rep. Earl Pomeroy reported that they were forced to cancel several meetings because of the street violence, including once when they were unable to get through security at Gov. Schafer's hotel.

Seattle wasn't the only place protesters gathered. A group of 100 peaceful protesters representing agriculture interests, organized labor and environmental groups marched on the Idaho statehouse last week to show their opposition to Idaho senators Larry Craig and Mike Crapo's participation in the meetings.

Leaders from South Dakota also attended the WTO meetings in Seattle to promote the interests of the state's farmers and ranchers. According to South Dakota Farm Bureau spokesman Mike Held, U.S. agricultural products face an average tariff of 50 percent when they enter other countries. U.S. tariffs on agricultural products are closer to 10 percent.

"It's not an equal playing field. That's what we're trying to get at. This meeting has determined the parameters of discussions that will take place over the next two to five years, and we are going to keep agriculture at the top of the agenda," Held said.

Agriculture was such an important topic at the meetings that President Clinton appointed Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman as the chief United States spokesman for the Seattle talks.

While South Dakota government officials were busy meeting with delegations from Japan, France, Italy, Spain and Canada, some South Dakota farmers joined in the protests.

South Dakota Farmers Union president Dennis Wiese led some of his constituents in joining the protests aimed at protecting the environment and assuring that trade does not overshadow human rights in foreign policy.

"There's more to trade than just selling more grain or cattle. There are other values that need to be addressed and we must do it in a way that raises the standard of living in other nations up to ours, not by lowering our own," Wiese said.

WTO officials project that removing barriers to trade will increase global output by 3 percent and put an additional $1.2 trillion into the world economy, particularly benefiting poor countries.

But the failure to agree even on an agenda between the European Union and United States over farm subsidies now casts doubt over some of those predictions.

In the end, the violent clashes between protesters and police had their intended effect since WTO leaders adjourned the meetings without any significant agreements on agricultural policy. But that doesn't mean the WTO won't figure largely in the future of agricultural trade policies.

"We cannot stop the World Trade Organization because there is already globalization now. Our world is becoming smaller and smaller," said union president Dennis Wiese.