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> More on the modalities phase

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Members agreed at the Geneva Ministerial Conference in late November and early December 2009 that they would take stock of progress in the Doha Round within the first quarter of 2010. The assessment take place in the week of 22 to 26 March under the Trade Negotiations Committee (TNC), which oversees the talks.

The 3—12 March meetings included sessions open to all members on designing the blank forms for commitments and related information — known as “templates” — and on data members are being asked to supply in preparation for their commitments to cut subsidies and open markets (explained below).

Among the subjects discussed this time, Ambassador Walker reported, was what to include in data on “value of production”, which will be used to calculate new limits on some types of domestic support. (For example, “agricultural products” as defined in the Agriculture Agreement does not include fisheries and forestry, whereas some more readily-available data on countries’ agriculture sectors do.)

The chairperson also reported on the “modalities” issues discussed in his consultations with smaller groups of members during the two weeks:

  • The special safeguard mechanism (SSM), a tool that will allow developing countries to raise tariffs temporarily to deal with import surges or price falls (explained here). The consultation was based on two unofficial papers from the G-33 dealing with the “price and volume cross check”, and on the safeguard triggered by a price fall, Ambassador Walker reported. Two papers were circulated too late for delegations to comment on them. One was on flexibility for small and vulnerable economies (SVEs). The other was on “pro-rating” — a proposal, which the G-33 opposes, to adapt the calculation for triggering the safeguard so that it takes into account the possibility that imports in an earlier period, when a safeguard was being used, might be lower than the general trend, and therefore might exaggerate an import surge in a subsequent year, triggering the use of the safeguard again.

  • Sensitive products, whose tariff reductions will be less than normal. Canada and Japan are seeking more sensitive products than the 4% norm, and the question is whether this can be accepted and if so what price they might have to pay for it.

  • Tariff caps — whether or not some tariffs can end up higher than the proposed ceiling, and how that would be paid for.

  • Blue Box “headroom” — this deals with Blue Box support for each product. Generally the limits are the average spent in 1995—2000, with adjustments if there are gaps in spending in some years. For the US, the limits are 10% or 20% more than estimates of maximums under the 2002 Farm Bill, sometimes called “headroom”.

  • Cotton — members agreed at the 2005 Hong Kong Ministerial Conference that domestic support for cotton would be cut more steeply and faster than for agriculture as a whole.



Use these links to download the audio files or to listen to what he said in the meeting:


This meeting

This was an informal agriculture negotiations meeting of the full membership, officially an “Informal Open-Ended Special Session” of the Agriculture Committee.

The latest texts and a number of related issues can be found with explanations here, including what “the text” is and says, and a “jargon buster”.

The current phase of the negotiations is about “modalities”, explained here.



Explanations of the issues are available for the chairperson’s 2008 drafts and reports.

Templates and data. Part of the technical work is on organizing the data necessary to calculate commitments, which will be listed in “schedules” of commitments. Electronic forms or tables will be used to present base data — data to be used as the starting point for calculating commitments — in a way that is transparent and verifiable. Eventually they will be used to design “templates” for how the commitments will be presented.

Among the data needed are domestic consumption, for calculating the tariff quotas on sensitive products, and values of production for calculating domestic support commitments.

The technical work follows the draft “modalities” text of December 2008 and is in two steps:

Step 1: considering what “base data” are needed under the present draft “modalities” — what is already available, what will need to be “constructed”, and whether the draft “modalities” says how this should be done. This step would also include the question of whether supporting tables — tables displaying the data and how they are derived — are needed and what their format would be.

Step 2: developed from step 1, designing “templates” or blank forms to be used for the commitments resulting from the Doha Round negotiations, and for any supporting data required. Parts of the data could be presented before, during or after “modalities” have been agreed.

(Chairperson Walker has also referred to an eventual step 3: filling in the numbers.)

Schedules: In general, a WTO member’s list of commitments on market access (bound tariff rates, access to services markets). Goods schedules can include commitments on agricultural subsidies and domestic support. Services commitments include bindings on national treatment.

Templates: Here, blank forms prepared for the schedules of commitments, and for data used to calculate the commitments. Some of the data will be in “supporting tables” attached to the schedules of commitments.

Modalities: A way to proceed. In WTO negotiations, modalities set broad outlines — such as formulas or approaches for tariff reductions — for final commitments. In agriculture, the modalities include formulas and approaches for cutting domestic support and export subsidies as well.

“Job document”: unofficial document given a number beginning with “JOB”. Up to 2009, the number identifies the year, for example JOB(09)/99. From 2010 it identifies the subject, eg, JOB/AG/1. Because “job” documents are unofficial, they are usually restricted.

The three pillars: the main areas covered by the agriculture negotiations — export competition (export subsidies and related issues), domestic support and market access.

The story so far

2000: Agriculture negotiations launched (March). See backgrounder

2001: Doha Development Agenda launched. Agriculture included (November)

2004: “Framework” agreed (August)

2005: Further agreements in Hong Kong Ministerial Conference (December)

2006: Draft modalities (June)

2007: Revised draft modalities (July)

2007-2008: Intensive negotiations with working documents (September-January)

2008: The July 2008 package full coverage and the chair’s report

2008: Revised draft modalities (February, May, July and December)



This technical work would take the negotiators through the following sequence, leading to “schedules” (lists or tables) of commitments:

1. Members identify data needs and design blank forms (“templates”) for data and for commitments (now and through the autumn)

2. “Modalities” (formulas, flexibilities, disciplines) agreed, perhaps with agreed blank forms or tables, and with some data attached

3. “Scheduling” — forms/tables filled in. Some are draft commitments, based on “modalities” formulas. Some are supporting tables of data

4. Members verify each others’ draft commitments, using the supporting data.

5. Commitments are agreed as part of the Doha Round single undertaking

This work is technical, but some political questions also still have to be sorted out before “modalities” can be agreed.


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