WTO agriculture negotiators eye potential post-MC12 ‘roadmap’

The long battle to secure a follow-up agreement to the 1995 WTO Agreement on Agriculture looks set to continue for many more years, following the submission this week of a long-awaited ‘draft negotiation text’ on the subject.

The document, which is intended to represent a framework for agreement by ministers at MC12 – the WTO ministerial meeting in late November – contains few elements that significantly advance the debate on agricultural reform in the WTO.

Concrete proposals for possible agreement at MC12 are restricted to just a few areas, mostly on ensuring that food aid deliveries are exempted from export subsidy restrictions, and on improving the transparency of government agri-trade policy changes.

Beyond these points, there is an acceptance that a roadmap for further negotiations is the best that can be hoped for as an outcome.

27-page paper seeks to chart a way forward

The text of the paper, submitted to the WTO committee on agriculture on Thursday (29 July), has not been publicly released.

But sources in Geneva said the paper was an attempt to take stock of the multiple views expressed in the committee during discussions in recent months, and to chart a way forward.

¨It represents my honest effort to identify potential ‘landing zones’. It’s not meant to be perfect or capture all views. But it is a tool for you to engage with one another in a constructive exchange,” said the committee’s chair, Costa Rica’s Gloria Abraham Peralta, who drafted the paper.

The draft text is a 27-page document which includes text for a suggested ministerial decision covering eight agriculture negotiation topics.

These cover domestic support, market access, export restriction, export competition, cotton, public stockholding for food security purposes, a special safeguard mechanism, and transparency.

Exempting food aid from restrictions, and improving transparency

Of these, hopes of a substantial agreement at MC12 are now harboured only for export competition and transparency, given the wide gulf in positions between WTO member countries on other areas of the negotiation.

In essence, the export competition proposal is focused on the need to exempt World Food Programme (WFP) humanitarian food purchases from export restrictions, and on improved processes for notifying export restrictions.

The former point is not controversial, but the latter point will need to accommodate the divergent views of countries like Argentina, which use temporary export controls as a means of controlling domestic prices for key agricultural commodities, and the needs of net food-importer countries for whom export restrictions can mean sudden surges in prices.

Sources in Geneva said Peralta’s text on this point is based on a proposal previously submitted by Japan, Israel, South Korea, Liechtenstein, Switzerland and Chinese Taipei – all of whom are big net agricultural importers.

A standalone section on transparency is reported to draw heavily on a proposal put forward recently by the EU and others, which seeks to improve processes for notifying changes in countries’ importing or exporting regulations, albeit in a way which does not significantly increase the bureaucratic burden for developing country governments.

The EU also wants to change WTO rules which it sees as outdated, such as the provision which exempts developing members from export restriction notification obligations, unless they are net food exporters.

Seeking a roadmap for post-MC12 negotiations

In other areas of the agriculture negotiations, a ‘roadmap’ for further talks beyond MC12 is the best that members can hope for, in the chair’s view – and this is understood to be the primary focus of the rest of the text.

On reforms of the rules around agricultural domestic support, Peralta is reported to believe that an outcome of substance at MC12 is out of reach – but she has suggested “some alternatives to provide a more malleable basis for finding consensus on intermediate steps”, according to sources in Geneva.

The same is true for public stockholding for food security purposes (PSH) – a key concern of India and other developing countries.

Views on this subject are said to be widely divergent, and here Peralta is reported to have suggested two possible ways forward. One “draws inspiration” from the draft text which was circulated (and not agreed) at the 2017 Buenos Aires ministerial conference (MC11), while the second suggests a roadmap for discussions post-MC12.

On market access, the chair is understood to have proposed a programme of negotiations, starting in 2022, which would aim for reductions in tariff barriers and substantial increases in market access over a 10-year period. Modalities for these reductions would be negotiated by MC13, which in principle should be held in the latter part of 2023.

The text also seeks to revisit the complex question of non-ad valorem tariffs – given that tariffs which are expressed as units of currency per tonne, as in the case of many EU and UK agricultural tariffs, are not easily comparable, in terms of their scope,, with tariffs that are expressed as a percentage of value.

In other areas of the draft text, the focus is on technical clarifications and improvements in notification processes, rather than substantive reforms to existing rules. In each case, the plan is that these would be addressed in more detail after MC12.

With the draft text now on the table – albeit not yet in the public domain – the chair is planning what sources in Geneva describe as “an intensive text-based negotiation phase” starting in September and running up to the 29 November- 3 December ministerial.

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