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col Don't deal away candy store during WTO talks

Around and around we go and where we'll stop no one really knows.

That's the impression received from the global World Trade Organization talks that began last week in Geneva. The discussions started pretty much where the failed Mexican round ended -- with developing nations grumbling that so-called rich nations haven't done enough to reduce $300 billion in yearly farm subsidies and supports.

A scenario that can lead to a successful global agreement is difficult to imagine at this point. The differences -- from African nations demanding and end to U.S. cotton subsidies and rich nations' unwillingness to stop protections for special agricultural products -- appear too great to bridge.

Many critics of free-trade agreements are pessimistic that they are capable of delivering on the potential to lift the economies of countries worldwide. The fear is that multi-national corporations will reap the benefits of free trade without regard for long-term economic impacts.

Indeed, many environmentalist organizations and labor organizations argue that free trade without adequate protections of the environment and labor writes does nothing but leave the economies of entire countries ripe for corporate plucking.

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Supporters of free trade hearken back to a quote credited to former President John F. Kennedy, who once said that a rising tide lifts all boats. Kennedy felt that the United States and other rich nations ought to do what they could to help developing nations, but it would be best of those nations lifted themselves by their own bootstraps.

Much has changed in the 45 years since Kennedy spoke those words. The great Cold War that threatened to engulf the world is over, having been one in no small part by America's breath-taking food producing capability. The conflict on our minds today -- global terrorism -- is so fluid that it is tougher to get a handle on.

However, many believe that improving the economic conditions throughout the Third World will produce a more peaceful world. Agriculture can certainly play a role in that. Trade deals can play a role, but they must be fair and include protections for family farmers, workers and the environment. Competition and free markets must have fair labor and environmental laws.

Blind competition, welcomed by many who believe a free market works best unfettered by government restrictions, excels at picking winners and losers. In today's world, winners must be willing to share. Global free trade, while no panacea, offers hope that wealth will be more evenly distributed between rich and poor.

U.S. negotiators must tread carefully, least they cut a deal that restricts our sovereignty -- the ability to dictate agricultural policy.

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