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Plucking a big bone in free-trade talks: food

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Obama’s hopes for a free-trade pact with Asia depend to a large degree on whether Japan agrees to join the talks. For now, a deep cultural affinity among the Japanese toward their rice-growing culture, combined with the political power of a dwindling number of rice farmers, has prevented the world’s third-largest economy from joining the talks.

China has not been invited to these talks. In fact, it is trying to form a non-US trade zone within Asia. It also has a new sensitivity toward food security. It has begun a new program to promote self-sufficiency in grains.

All these disputes over food reflect deep concerns about defining community, establishing trust across borders, and ensuring the well-being of others in the world. Defining the issues along those broader lines, trade negotiators might be able to better find common ground and persuade various food-related interest groups to compromise.

“We are focused on the future," Karel De Gucht, the EU trade commissioner, told the Financial Times. "This is not a negotiation that has as a prime aim to find ... a solution for chlorine chicken. What we want to do is make an internal market between the US and the EU.”

Obama’s leadership will be essential to bring the major economies together on these difficult food issues. Solving them will enhance trade and boost growth in general. He has a lot on his plate until 2014.

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