WTO members resume agriculture negotiations following COVID-19 pause

WTO members resumed negotiations on reform of agricultural trade at a meeting of the Committee on Agriculture in Special Session on 25 September. The new chair of the farm trade talks, Ambassador Gloria Abraham (Costa Rica), said the discussions constituted a restart of the negotiations after six months of quasi-recess resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The chair reported to delegations on her consultations with members to examine the state of play in the negotiations and to hear their thoughts on the way forward.  Seven submissions from members on advancing various aspects of the negotiations were also discussed at the meeting, which took place in a “hybrid” format involving both virtual and in-person interventions from delegates.

The chair’s report

In her first report to delegations since being appointed the new chair of the agriculture negotiations on 21 July, Amb. Abraham noted that she held 36 meetings with members and group coordinators since the beginning of September, with consultations focusing on three issues:

  • lessons learned from the negotiation process before the pandemic and possible adjustments required in the current context;
  • members’ priorities for the negotiations; and
  • members’ views on the timelines for the different stages of consultations and negotiations.

The chair said it was clear for all that an agricultural outcome at the WTO’s next ministerial conference (MC12) is a must to preserve the credibility of the organization in the years ahead, including through its capacity to address the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. It is also clear that MC12 will not be the end of the road and should be a milestone preparing for the continuation of the negotiations afterwards. An obvious difficulty in the immediate term is the COVID-19 related uncertainty, including in relation to the date and location of MC12. This uncertainty requires members to be very pragmatic and agile and adapt as necessary. The chair said her intention was neither to slow down the process nor to accelerate it, but to go as fast as possible without taking inconsiderate risks.

The priorities for members remain the same, the chair said:  domestic support continues to be the top priority for many delegations, even more so in the context of the COVID-19 crisis. The focus was on an outcome at MC12 that could pave the way for further progress afterwards. A number of members reiterated their interest in progress under the market access pillar but said they were realistic that only certain transparency elements could possibly be agreed at MC12. Several members called for renewed focus on the exemption of World Food Programme purchases from export restrictions and greater transparency and clarification with regards to export restrictions overall, based on an assessment of the measures adopted following the COVID-19 outbreak. Flexibilities regarding public stockholdings for food security purposes, the special safeguard mechanism (SSM) and cotton were also cited as priorities by members.

Regarding the way forward, the chair noted that it should build upon the extensive work undertaken under the leadership of her predecessor, while recognizing that several members had also indicated that some negotiating positions and priorities may need to be updated or recalibrated in light of the implications of the COVID-19 crisis. The upcoming work should be informed where necessary by updated information and analytical technical work.

The chair said in the weeks ahead facilitators under her supervision would begin a topic-by-topic process, targeted and technical in nature and aiming to preparing the ground for future decisions by clarifying the issues under discussion.  The process would also examine ways to narrow gaps and identify realistic landing zones where possible. A first evaluation would be made by the end of 2020 or in early 2021. To launch this process, the chair said she would circulate shortly a communication inviting delegates interested in being designated as the chair’s facilitators to make themselves known. Two more negotiating group meetings will be held in November and December 2020 where the facilitators will report on their activities and members will have an opportunity to introduce new submissions and inputs.

More than a dozen WTO members took the floor to comment, speaking on their own behalf or on behalf of groups sharing common interests. Many of the interventions reflected standing positions regarding priorities for the negotiations and what may be feasible for deliverables at MC12. The chair said she would reflect on members’ interventions when advancing on the preparations for the process going forward.

Member submissions

Australia, on behalf of the Cairns Group of agricultural exporting members, presented its submission on protecting global food security through open trade. The submission calls on WTO members to ensure that any emergency measures in agriculture in response to COVID-19 are targeted, proportionate, transparent, temporary and consistent with WTO rules and to exercise restraint when considering introducing new measures; and for all members to be transparent about any COVID-related agriculture measures and to notify the WTO as soon as possible when adopting such measures. The submission also calls on WTO members to refrain from imposing export restrictions on food purchases by the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) and other humanitarian agencies and stresses the importance of the negotiation to establish a fair and market-oriented agricultural trading system.

A dozen members expressed their support for the proposal, while some developing members cautioned that flexibilities were needed to address the concerns of food-insecure countries. The call to exempt export restrictions for the WFP purchases was welcomed by many delegations, with one member expressing its concerns regarding a potential “blanket exemption”. A suggestion from Mali to invite representatives from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and WFP to brief members on the impact of the pandemic was endorsed by the participants.

Canada presented a joint proposal from Canada, Norway and Switzerland calling for a decision at MC12 on enhancing transparency in export competition.  The proposal calls on members that have not yet done so to ensure that the commitment to eliminate export subsidies (agreed to at the WTO’s 2015 Nairobi Ministerial Conference) is reflected in their WTO schedules of commitments no later than June or December 2021, and requires members to provide additional information in their replies to the annual questionnaire on export competition, complemented by data from the WTO Secretariat. The proposal also suggests ways to enhance the rate of responses to the questionnaire and their comprehensiveness and reaffirms Members’ commitment to continue the negotiations on this topic.

Several members expressed their support for the proposal, while one member cautioned that limitations on developing and least developed countries to meet new transparency obligations needs to be recognized.

Canada also presented a joint submission from Australia, Brazil and Canada aimed at addressing issues that arise with sudden increases in applied tariffs by members, which create uncertainty for exporters and additional costs for importers. The objective is to compile an inventory of current practices when an applied tariff changes, share with members the potential issues that arise from change in applied tariffs, and propose options to enhance predictability in applied tariffs and management of shipments en route.

Several members echoed the transparency concerns raised in the joint submission and expressed their support to develop a workable approach in light of members’ current practices  while some others cautioned the initiative could impose additional compliance burdens on already overwhelmed administrations in developing countries and restrict policy space.

The Russian Federation presented a submission based on the outcome of the Round Table-Type Discussion on Enhancing Transparency in Applied Tariffs which it organized last January. Russia said conclusions from that meeting were that a substantial share of tariff changes enter into force the day they are officially published; that lack of predictability in tariff policy may impede the effective integration of micro, small and medium-sized enterprises into global value chains; and that the availability of online databases and portals is essential for facilitating access to trade information. Russia said it will continue to seek ways of improving transparency in applied tariffs in order to prepare concrete proposals for MC12.

Japan presented the joint findings from five members (Japan, Israel, Korea, Switzerland and Chinese Taipei) examining the use of export-restrictive measures in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic. Japan said the findings are based on information provided by the WTO Secretariat, notifications from members, and the responses in the special meeting of the Committee on Agriculture held on 18 June 2020.

Japan noted that 16 members have imposed a total of 21 export-restrictive measures since March 2020.  Of the 21 measures, 11 are export prohibitions, five are export quotas and two are licensing requirements. Three measures were initially adopted as export prohibitions and later changed to export quotas. The average duration of the measures is approximately 130 days; one-third of the measures have not been withdrawn, and the durations of some measures indicated they will remain in place beyond the end of 2020. In addition, only six measures out of 21 had been notified to the Committee on Agriculture, and none of them in advance. Japan also analysed the responses by members during the special meeting of the Committee on Agriculture on COVID-19 held on 18 June to identified questions related to the application of the current disciplines. Without  clear disciplines on export restrictions, Japan considered, commercial prices of food will go up and negatively impact the food security of importing countries.

More than a dozen members took the floor. Most expressed their willingness to continue the discussion and said the report underlined the importance for members to notify any export restrictions to the WTO and/or the negative impact on global trade in agriculture arising from such export restrictions. One delegation said WTO members needed to ensure that vulnerable countries are able to ensure their domestic food needs.

Speaking on behalf of the Cairns Group, Australia presented the group’s new communication on a possible way forward on tackling trade-distorting domestic support entitlements. The communication stems from a growing frustration with the limited progress made on domestic support since 1995, and concerns about the continued growth in entitlements to trade distorting support since that time, Australia said. The Cairns Group estimates that entitlements under the Amber Box alone will reach US$ 2 trillion by 2030 if left unchecked.

The proposed framework contains five elements, among them a focus on entitlements, rather than actual support levels, to ensure policy space; taking into consideration all trade distorting support under Article 6 of the Agreement on Agriculture without prejudging how various elements are addressed; ensuring those with the highest entitlements and potential impact on global markets would make the biggest contributions; and ensuring the individual development needs of members are taken into account.

Around 20 members took the floor, with their interventions largely reflecting their longstanding positions on issues such as the need to address domestic support as a priority for the farm trade talks, the elements of domestic support that should be the focus for future disciplines or reduction commitments, and the contributions to be made by members, particularly in regards to stage of development.

Brazil presented for transparency purposes a concept paper that aims at proposing a framework for discussion and reflection in order to guide “Ottawa Group” officials in the implementation of three action points on agriculture agreed at a June meeting of the group. The paper focuses in particular on steps WTO members could take to continue improving agriculture trade based on the lessons learned from COVID-19 to ensure that future crises will not undermine trade, food security and the stability of agricultural markets in the long term.

Several Ottawa Group members took the floor to commit to further work on issues raised in the paper.

More information on the work of the Committee on Agriculture is available here.

Source


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