An alternative trigger formula for special safeguards for agriculture

So in the midst of the financial crisis hullabaloo (Vox ran 16 columns in the last seven days!), I forgot to mention that Robert Baldwin has a way to make progress at Doha.

Remember the special safeguard squabble? It may be largely attributable to a crummy formula:

Trigger levels for the special agricultural safeguard mechanism under negotiation in the Doha Round are expressed simply as percentage increases in the volume of imports over the preceding three years or percentage decreases in a product’s import price compared to its monthly average over the preceding three years.

But the effect of a given percentage increase in the volume of imports on the livelihood conditions of domestic farmers varies greatly depending on the level of import penetration…

A much better trigger mechanism that distinguishes between when developing countries do and do not need additional import protection to maintain food security and livelihood conditions of their poor farmers is simply the percentage increase in imports divided by the average consumption of the product over a recent period…

With a measure that indicates changes in market access opportunities for farmers much more accurately than relative changes in the volume of imports alone, the issue of whether safeguard actions should be permitted to raise import duties above pre-Doha Round levels should no longer be of major concern.

The shame is that all parties now agree on the need for a special safeguard mechanism, and they broadly agree on what it should achieve. The particular formula they have chosen, however, is too blunt to distinguish between safeguarding fragile livelihoods and old-fashioned protectionism.

Enough to get the talks back on track? Maybe not, but it sounds like a major improvement over the current formula.