I am delighted to welcome you today to this symposium on the agriculture policy landscape. As you would have seen from the programme, we have an impressive line-up of speakers — from academia to international organizations, from think tanks to the public sector. You’ll have the opportunity to hear from experts in agriculture policy and trade from both developed and developing countries on the trends and future expectations of the global food and agriculture economy, and the implications for farmers, consumers, and businesses.
Agriculture has always been a challenging issue at the WTO. And this is not surprising. Farmers around the world face variable environmental conditions, fluctuating world prices, and rapidly evolving value chains. Each country has a unique landscape, shaped by water, soil, and weather conditions. Countries seeking to address food security challenges have to balance the diverse needs of consumers and producers. The perspectives of WTO Members on how to approach the challenges in this sector therefore vary considerably, hence the difficulties in making progress in the negotiations.
The food and agriculture economic landscape has been transformed dramatically in the past fifteen years. The shifting array of market actors, products and tools has created opportunities as well as challenges. The world is interconnected through information technology, communication tools, and trade. Over the past 10 years global agricultural trade has been growing steadily -- at an average pace of 5.3 per cent annually.
Farmers can draw on mountains of information that decades ago they would never have been able to access. Satellites are collecting information on weather, crop status, pest prevalence, and water availability. Companies are developing innovative information services to assist with the integration and analysis of this growing mountain of information. New opportunities are emerging for producers to connect to new high-value markets.
There are many global challenges. The agriculture sector needs to feed 9 billion people by 2050 with limited natural resources and in a more sustainable way. While the share of the world’s population that is hungry and poor has been falling, the absolute numbers are unacceptable necessitating concerted efforts of all countries to achieve the relevant Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by Heads of State and Governments in September 2015 as part of the review of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Droughts, floods, and extreme weather events are occurring more frequently, creating challenges for farmers. Population and environmental changes will affect agriculture demand and supply, influencing the choices made by consumers and producers. No one set of policies will solve these complex issues.
An open, transparent and inclusive trading system is an essential element in addressing these challenges — all the major challenges including achieving food security. I am not suggesting that open trade alone can resolve the food insecurity in the world, but clearly trade is an indispensable tool that must be part of a comprehensive domestic policy package encompassing, for example, coherent and appropriate macroeconomic policies, nutrition policies, research and development, and agricultural extension services to achieve food security.
The risk we face is that it may be difficult for all to gain access to the numerous opportunities that would become available. Many smallholders still struggle to connect to markets — for many reasons including weak infrastructure and lack of access to technologies. We need to ensure that as the agricultural sector is transformed, the less-advantaged have equitable access to the opportunities that are created.
I have three main points that I wish to highlight this morning about how the WTO can contribute to a more resilient, inclusive agricultural trading system.
First, I’d like to emphasize the essential role of information sharing and transparency in leveling the playing field and supporting inclusive trade.
Transparency plays an increasingly important role in ensuring that markets are working for all. However the huge amount and diversity of information that is being generated by new technologies will not automatically enhance transparency. Transparency in such a dynamic environment requires additional effort. Different sources of data need to be integrated before they can be analyzed. Increasingly, sophisticated analytical tools are needed to extract the usable information from vast data sets.
Transparency is an integral aspect of the WTO rules and processes. Members notify to their trading partners the details of their domestic support to agriculture, tariff-rate quota imports, and export competition policies. In the Agriculture Committee, Members ask each other questions on these notifications and on other issues related to the implementation of their WTO commitments. Through these exchanges, WTO Members can gain valuable insights into the policy landscapes of their trading partners.
At the WTO, new data systems are being put in place. Later this year, Members will be able to provide notification data directly to a system for on-line submission of notifications. This system will improve transparency by encouraging harmonized data submission and by ensuring accuracy through automated calculations. The database will compile data from the full Membership, synthesizing information in a way that will enable deeper understanding of policies. Other systems are being developed and expanded in the Secretariat that will link databases, allowing search and analysis across the full range of trade policy information sources maintained at the WTO.
Better availability of data does not ensure the adoption of wise policies that are mindful of domestic needs as well as the interests of trading partners. But without adequate information, harmful errors in policy-making become harder to avoid.
Second, I would like to highlight the importance of building and maintaining broad perspectives. In this rapidly changing world, there is a need to balance divergent views both at home and in this body, to accommodate the interests of all where possible.
As the pace of change accelerates due to greater global interconnectedness, it is necessary to adjust agricultural policies to take advantage of new opportunities and to meet new challenges.
Policy decisions taken at the country level can have wide systemic effects — on broad economic outcomes, on agricultural outcomes, on environmental outcomes and on the quality of life. Ultimately these choices will have an impact on the sustainability and health of the global agri-food system and all who depend on it. By broadening our perspectives, we can better understand the ways these complex systems interact and the way that policy decisions shape farmers’ decisions, firms’ decisions, and consumers’ decisions.
WTO rules were created to minimize the potential negative spillover from trade-distorting policies, but there is room for improvement in the rules to enable the multilateral trading system to respond effectively to transformation in the agriculture sector to ensure that all countries benefit from the system. Equitable access to the emerging opportunities will facilitate the realization of the relevant SDGs.
A well-functioning multilateral trading system is imperative for the realization of SDG 2 — "zero hunger". The contribution that could be made by the WTO is also recognized in SDG 17, which underscores the need for the promotion of a universal, rules-based, open, non-discriminatory and equitable multilateral trading system under the World Trade Organization".
The WTO can contribute by providing opportunities to reflect and discuss together. This week's programme of events at the Secretariat includes this symposium, the Committee on Agriculture, and policy presentations by Member countries. In other meeting rooms today there is another meeting hosted by the Enhanced Integrated Framework which is intended to inspire deeper collaboration and commitments in support of further LDC integration into global and regional trade. These events and meetings provide venues for diverse viewpoints to be expressed and debated.
During the next two days at this Symposium, all of you will have the opportunity to engage with experts on the pressing issues for trade and agriculture. The four sessions cover a wide range of topics — from the economic significance of agriculture trade to the evolving trade patterns; from evolving value-chains to agriculture policy trends. Discussants will provide country- specific perspectives highlighting the relevance of the agriculture sector in their own domestic contexts. Most importantly, there will be time for you to exchange views with each other on these important issues.
The complex challenges we face will not be solved by actions of individual countries. I firmly believe that with a shared commitment to continue to work together we can discover new solutions to these difficult issues.
The WTO must seek to articulate a vision for common goals while ensuring that diverse perspectives are respected and taken into account.
We need to better understand the common problems that we face, so we can use them to learn and to adapt proposals to deliver needed solutions.
In order to build resilience in the global agri-food system WTO Members need to commit to sharing information, broadening perspectives, and engaging with each other with open minds.
In conclusion, I encourage you to take full advantage of this symposium -- to be curious, to explore new ideas and to engage in a dialogue with each other. By learning from each other we can strengthen our own interconnectedness. Together we can identify opportunities to strengthen the agriculture and food system and build sustainable solutions through our common efforts as WTO Members.