Food Security and the WTO

The International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development has posted this article on the WTO, Food Security and the push for consensus: Food Security: WTO Deadline Prompts Scramble for Consensus

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Consultations on food security, export restrictions, and other unresolved issues continued at the WTO’s formal General Council meeting on Wednesday 30 November, as members sought out consensus ahead of the global trade body’s ministerial meeting in two week’s time.

Several proposals were amended in a last-minute bid to find wording that all members could accept, trade officials said. In order to take on trade partners’ concerns, the coalition of net-food importing developing countries (NFIDCs) also modified its draft decision on a work programme on food security challenges that both NFIDCs and least developed countries (LDCs) face, sources said (see Bridges Weekly, 2 November 2011).

“Everything has been watered down from our starting point,” one developing country negotiator observed.

Meanwhile, West African cotton producing countries had been obliged substantially to modify another proposal for a freeze on cotton subsidy spending at current, historically-low levels. Instead of debating the cotton producers’ earlier proposal, trade ministers were now expected only to reiterate the commitment to address cotton “ambitiously, expeditiously and specifically” that members agreed at the WTO’s Hong Kong ministerial conference in 2005, trade sources said.

The US has resisted moves to impose restrictions on their domestic support for cotton in the absence of other measures targeting payments for producers in large developing countries, such as China and India, trade sources said.

“There isn’t very much progress in this regard,” admitted one negotiator who was familiar with the issue.

Food aid: export restrictions

A separate proposal on humanitarian food aid was also slated for discussion at the Wednesday meeting: tabled by the EU and a group of both developed and developing countries, the draft decision would exempt humanitarian food aid purchases by the UN’s World Food Programme from export restrictions imposed by WTO members (see Bridges Weekly, 2 November 2011).

The text would have all WTO members adopt the language of an agreement reached by G-20 agriculture ministers at their Paris summit in June, which was reaffirmed at the beginning of November by heads of state in Cannes. However, not all G-20 countries co-sponsored the EU proposal at the WTO, in a sign of underlying divergences amongst the countries’ trade ministries.

In comments to Bridges, some smaller countries also expressed concern that they had been dissuaded from making further changes to the language agreed amongst the G-20. “They were not willing to change a comma,” one source claimed.

Food deficit countries: work programme?

The group of NFIDCs, and their African and Arab Group co-sponsors, had further modified a proposal for a work programme on the challenges that NFIDCs and LDCs face, sources said. A revised version of the text omitted the previous mention of the need to ensure that NFIDCs and LDCs can access adequate supplies of basic foodstuffs, and modified two other elements of the draft that had sparked comment from other countries.

Under the new proposal, trade ministers would agree to “direct the General Council to develop a comprehensive, fact-based, result-oriented and time-bound work program” to examine how to mitigate the impact of food price volatility on LDCs and NFIDCs.

According to a draft seen by Bridges, the elements of the work programme would be agreed by members, but could include developing new rules that would ensure that LDC and NFIDC government-authorised food purchases would be exempted from quantitative export restrictions imposed under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) Article XI.2(a) by major agricultural exporters.

The text also proposes that the work programme could explore, “in co-ordination with competent institutions,” concessional financing mechanisms to address short-term difficulties in financing food imports. A number of countries had objected to a clause in a previous proposal anticipating that a revolving fund could be set up to do so at the WTO, arguing instead that other international institutions were better suited to provide this support than the global trade body.

In an attempt to accommodate the concerns of other countries which argued that they faced similar challenges, despite not belonging to the NFIDC or LDC groups, the revised proposal anticipates that the work programme will also address those challenges encountered by other vulnerable developing countries facing critical situations of food insecurity. The work programme would be pursued under the auspices of the WTO Committee on Agriculture, sources said.

Political guidance

Issues that have not been included on the General Council’s agenda, or in the draft ‘political guidance’ that ministers will provide to the WTO, could still be reflected in stand-alone decisions or declarations, trade sources said. (For more on the political guidance elements, see the lead story in this issue.)

As Bridges went to press, delegates were working toward reaching agreement on a draft political guidance document for ministers to approve, and which is expected to form one part of a ‘chair’s summary’ alongside other issues that are raised in the discussions among ministers.

While members have been scrambling to reach consensus on outstanding issues, “the political guidance text isn’t the be-all and end-all,” one negotiator pointed out.

However, members now have only a few days left to finalise agreement before ministers arrive in Geneva in a fortnight’s time.

ICTSD reporting.

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