The year 2003 is almost history. Maybe that’s a good thing. In his hilarious book The Devil’s Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce defined “history” as “an account, mostly false, of events, mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers, mostly knaves, and soldiers, mostly fools.”

Well, I suppose 2003 was better than that. Indeed, it is ending on a very positive note for free trade, with the announcement last week of a major accord between the United States and four Central American countries. Once it goes into effect, 80 percent of American products will be able to enter El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua duty-free–and that figure will rise close to 100 percent over the next decade.

But there’s no guarantee the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) will become law. Congress still must approve the measure–and with next year an election year for the president, one-third of the Senate, and the entire House of Representatives, there’s no telling what will happen.

Costa Rica was expected to join the pact, but it pulled out at the last minute. The reason? Domestic politics. Special interests are trying to protect their telecommunications industry from U.S. competition. Unfortunately, we’re not immune to that either. We have an agriculture commodity mounting an anti-CAFTA effort for the same reason.

No matter what happens with Costa Rica and our uncompetitive group, I’m cautiously optimistic about CAFTA’s passage. If we learned one thing in 2003, however, it’s that free trade doesn’t happen automatically. We saw the World Trade Organization talks break down in Cancun. There are many reasons why this happened, but the news isn’t as bad as some of the knee-jerk press commentary suggested. New talks are already starting in Geneva. I’m confident that the Doha round eventually will succeed.

Nevertheless, if we didn’t know it before, we definitely know it now — Free trade has no shortage of enemies who will not rest until they halt and possibly even reverse the continued spread of economic liberalization.

For American farmers, it’s impossible to separate free trade from biotechnology. On this front, 2003 was a very good year. For the first time, more than half of the world’s population now lives in a country that permits some level of biotech planting. That’s still not enough, but there has been steady improvement.

To be sure, 2003 would have been an even better year if the European Union had abandoned its continuing hostility to biotechnology. Earlier this month, the EU had a chance to issue its first new biotech food approval in five years–but it failed to act.

European intransigence on biotechnology remains one of the most frustrating matters I’ve ever dealt with in the world of science, trade, and public policy.

Having said that, the Europeans won’t hold out forever. They simply can’t because the advantages of biotechnology are becoming too great to ignore. Over the last 12 months, we’ve learned about important advances that will help corn plants fend off rootworm and wheat plants to better survive dry spells. There have been remarkable developments that will enable people with soy allergies to eat foods derived from soybeans. Potato researchers have figured out a way to combat the deadly fungus responsible for the 19th century’s disastrous Irish potato famine. And we know that heart-healthy and cancer-fighting products are in the pipeline.

There was one bit of bad news that turned into good news. In Canada, scientists discovered an animal infected with mad-cow disease. Rather than sparking a public panic–as happened in Europe several years ago–this incident provided us with an inspiring example of the regulatory system detecting a potential problem and then taking steps to deal with it effectively. In other words, everything worked exactly as it should.

Many battles remain. One of the most important is in Hawaii, where anti-biotech activists are trying to turn the public against the cutting-edge plant research that allows biotechnology to continue improving the quality of our lives. We are doing our best to fight their lies, but they keep inventing new ones. (Ambrose Bierce’s definition of a liar: “A lawyer with a roving commission.”)

I’ll conclude with a few predictions for 2004: Congress will approve CAFTA, but it will be a close vote; Europe, at long last, will approve at least one new biotech food product; and there will continue to be amazing and unexpected breakthroughs that highlight the importance of biotechnology.

Let’s hope I’m three-for-three. If not, then expect me to quote from The Devil’s Dictionary–and really mean it.