WTO: Agriculture ambitions scaled back ahead of MC12

The aims for an outcome on agriculture at the upcoming WTO ministerial conference have become clearer – and they can be summarised as ‘agree on limiting export restrictions, and agree to keep talking about everything else’.

This has become evident following the latest recent round of negotiations in Geneva in the run-up to MC12, which is now less than two weeks away.

The chair of the negotiations, Costa Rica’s Gloria Abraham Peralta, is engaged in a pragmatic push to maintain some kind of momentum in the agriculture talks, despite major divisions among WTO members over most of the key topics under discussion.

This will culminate in the presentation of new draft ministerial texts this Friday (19 November), in which the key buzzword will be ‘work programmes’.

In essence, Peralta is hoping to set out a rough timetable for further negotiations on agricultural trade reform, with the aim of progressing all of the dossiers currently on the table for possible agreement at MC13 – which is likely to be held in late 2023.

A Geneva trade official said that the chair’s aim in drafting the papers would be to offer the “most realistic option for MC12”, taking into account the widely differing views of WTO members.

Ministers to target ‘low-hanging fruit’ on export restrictions

The plan is to present ministers with draft declarations on each of the seven main topics under negotiation.

These are domestic support, market access, export restrictions, export competition, cotton, public stockholding for food security purposes (PSH), and a special safeguard mechanism (SSM). A separate declaration will address the ‘cross-cutting’ issue of transparency and improvements in notifications.

The only actual agreement is likely to be a multilateral commitment not to impose export restrictions on products purchased as emergency food aid by the UN’s World Food Programme.

This was reportedly described by Peralta this week as “very low hanging fruit” for negotiators – even though India is understood to be still raising concerns over some aspects of the proposed agreement.

‘Work programmes’ to keep negotiations alive on other points

On all of the other points, the chair has concluded that divisions between members are such that a deal of any substance at MC12 is now out of reach.

On the core questions of reforms to existing disciplines on domestic support, and improvements in agricultural market access, the aim will be to set out work programmes for the post-MC12 period. These will lay down some high-level goals and principles, and include some indicative timelines.

Improved transparency will be the focus of the declarations on export restrictions and on export competition, with the WTO Secretariat playing an enhanced role in enabling the collection and tramsission of data from countries which may otherwise lack the necessary resources.

On the issue of public stockholding programmes (PSH), India is vocal in calling for the current temporary authorisation for government spending on food stockholding programmes to be made permanent – and for new products and new programmes to be added to the scope of the waiver.

This however is opposed by developed countries who see the scheme as a backdoor way of giving India carte blanche to make big interventions in its domestic agricultural market with impunity. There is therefore little scope for agreement on anything beyond a commitment to keep the negotiations going.

Similarly bland outcomes are expected on cotton – where a Doha Round-era mandate exists to seek ‘expeditious’ measures to remove market distortions for the benefit of poorer developing countries – and on efforts to introduce a regime of special safeguard measures to protect developing countries against possible import surges.

More negotiations next week?

The new draft declarations will be discussed at the WTO General Council meeting next Monday and Tuesday (22-23 November).

But Peralta said there may be further meetings of the agriculture negotiating group after that date, if there is a chance of making further technical progress before the ministerial meeting itself starts on 30 November.

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