I’m delighted to join you today at the Global Forum on Agriculture and to contribute to the discussions on the issue of digital technologies and their role in the food value chain.

The world is changing at a fast pace and the potential benefits of technological advancement for agricultural production and trade demand our attention. It’s not surprising that at the WTO Members stay consistently engaged on two increasingly related subjects: agriculture and e-commerce.

The prospects for advancing work in these areas are promising. In our discussions since the Buenos Aires Ministerial Conference last year, WTO Members have clearly indicated that they are in favour of progress on these topics. WTO Discussions on MSMEs also show promise and digital technologies in agriculture offer hope for these smaller producers. Digital technologies make it easier for small producers to collect essential information, to make smart production decisions, and to connect to markets. WTO Members are excited about the potential positive impact that can be generated globally by working together on these topics.

The agriculture sector needs to feed 9 billion people by 2050 with limited natural resources and in a more sustainable way.  Technological progress has a key role to play in achieving this goal in general, and digital technologies in spreading relevant information, knowledge and good practices in particular.

In my talk today I have four main points that I would like to highlight about the way that the WTO contributes to ensuring that the global agriculture trading system is up to this challenge.

  1. Inclusive trade:  The WTO framework contributes to ensuring that ICT benefits are broadly shared and to creating an inclusive trading system.
  2. Transparency – WTO work collecting, synthesizing and integrating data from Members enhances transparency so that decision makers have the information they need.
  3. Flexibility: Since Buenos Aires, WTO Members have been reflecting on approaches to sharing information, promoting dialogue and advancing discussions.
  4. Collaborative solutions: Given the complexity of these issues, collaborative solutions are essential.

Digital technologies can support inclusive trade: The WTO framework contributes to ensuring that benefits from digitalization are broadly shared and to creating an inclusive trading system

New technologies can help reduce barriers to participation in the agricultural trading system, ensuring that its benefits are more broadly shared. These technologies have potentially transformative benefits for agricultural trade – including facilitating market integration and ensuring safe trade. The G20 has also recognized and championed the role of new technologies in agriculture as an effective way to enhance global food security and bridge income gaps. The WTO contributes to creating an enabling environment for the adoption and use of digital technologies in agriculture trading systems.

New technologies and innovations have transformed the management of sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) risks within food value chains.  The Standards and Trade Development Facility's (STDF) global partnership brings together trade, health and agricultural experts to address SPS challenges and drive forward coherent solutions to boost safe trade, contributing to the UN's agenda to 2030.  Many of these solutions draw on new technologies and digital tools.

Digital tools can increase the likelihood that risks along the value chain are detected. For instance, in the Asia-Pacific region, countries are benefiting from an STDF project to facilitate trade by strengthening information systems for pest surveillance and reporting.  

Digital tools can decrease the need for unnecessary paperwork. Another STDF project is devoted to assessing the use of e-certification for trade in animals and animal products, identifying how veterinary authorities in developing countries can benefit. Transitioning to automated certification systems reduces the time spent on processing and transmitting data, leading to increased exports and private sector savings.

From smartphone-supported rapid diagnostic tests to pest trackers to electronic certification, digital tools help developing countries gain access to lucrative regional and international markets. The tools can contribute to sustainable economic growth, poverty reduction and an increased trust among trading partners.

This said, concerns remain about inequality across countries in terms of connectivity, access to information and new technologies and the skills to apply them. The positive impact that digital tools can have depends substantially on supportive public policies and taking concrete steps that make access to information and new technologies more equitable.

WTO rules on agriculture provide  policy space for governments to set up supportive policies and invest in research; training; extension and advisory services, including helping to make sure that information flows to producers and consumers.

More needs to be done of course to facilitate trade, notably by reducing traditional trade barriers to movements of goods and services, as well as removing trade distortions, so that they do not undermine the potential benefits from the adoption of digital technologies.

Transparency is essential for trust:  Digitalization of agriculture also provides new mechanisms for information sharing and transparency. WTO work — collecting, synthesizing and integrating data from Members — enhances transparency so that decision-makers have the information they need.

Agriculture has always been a data-intensive sector, but farmers - probably more than other stakeholders of the food value chain – were often unable to access data.  And once they did, they lacked the tools to synthesize and analyse it.

New technologies have played a crucial role in data democratisation.  Farmers can now have real time information on their mobile phones.  To inform their production and marketing decisions. Small-holder farmers in remote areas can download statistics on weather forecasts, crop conditions and pest prevalence. They can access information on prices, standards in export markets and financial services at every stage of the food value chain.  

Furthermore, digital tools can play an important role in the reduction of asymmetries of information between different stakeholders in food value chains.  Enhanced communication between buyers and producers minimizes misunderstandings and increases trust.  Ultimately, the international trading system is strengthened through trust generated by these strengthened connections.

Both the OECD and WTO play a role in ensuring transparency of agriculture trade and policy. The OECD's policy monitoring, including in the area of agriculture, highlights current policies and forecasts future implications of production and policy patterns. By shining a light on agriculture policies, the OECD provides countries with information and analysis and encourages collective focus on tackling market distortions. 

Transparency is also enshrined in the WTO rules and processes. In agriculture, Members provide their trading partners with information on domestic support to agriculture, tariff-rate quota imports, and export competition policies.  This information is an essential input for future negotiations, supporting more informed debate and understanding.

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 provide a compilation of 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.


Rapid change requires Flexibile approaches: Since Buenos Aires, WTO Members have been reflecting on new flexible approaches to sharing information, promoting dialogue and advancing discussions.

There was a strong commitment to making progress on all the main agricultural trade issues – domestic support, market access and export competition.

In my view, shared increasingly by a number of WTO Members,  this offers us an opportunity of a fresh start. Members can now focus on the real barriers to agricultural trade and devise disciplines which can promote a fair and marketed-oriented system that can increase production to feed the world's rising population and enhance countries' food security.

The world economy is changing rapidly. Technology offers potential solutions to what used to be considered to be intractable problems in agriculture. This impressive pace of change requires fresh, flexible approaches -- approaches that promote understanding, rather than exacerbate differences.

The new chair of the agriculture negotiations at the WTO, Ambassador Ford from Guyana, has embraced the challenge with enthusiasm. He is well qualified to lead these technical discussions – with a Ph.D. in agriculture economics and many years working at the FAO as an economist.  He understands agriculture and the essential role agriculture trade plays in the world economy. He is eager to explore new flexible approaches for Members to share and discuss information -- to create the necessary fertile ground for dialogue and debate.

A critical mass of WTO Members believes that there is also room for improving other areas of WTO rules in a way that enhances world economic growth and increases standards of living in all countries. In these areas, digital technologies play a crucial role.

  • During the last Ministerial Conference in Buenos Aires, some 71 countries, accounting for 3/4 of global GDP,  agreed to seek common ground on rules relating to electronic commerce.   
  • More than 80 countries decided to address the needs of micro and medium and small enterprises (MSMEs) to foster improved participation in regional and global markets. Here again, I would  stress that enhanced access to timely and reliable information is among MSMEs' most pressing needs. 

Within these initiatives, countries have already started exploring the likelihood of achieving reforms that would strengthen global trade policy making and support the multilateral trading system.


Collaborative solutions: Given the complexity of these issues, collaborative solutions are essential

Technological change; Agricultural development; Environmental uncertainty. These issues affect each other in complex ways. In order to achieve sustainable solutions to pressing challenges, we need to continue to work together – at the individual level, at the country level and at the multilateral level. Organizations can collaborate to bring together diverse viewpoints in order to identify future opportunities and risks.

I've already mentioned one example of effective collaboration – the STDF.

The STDF is a partnership among the FAO, OIE, WHO, WTO and World Bank Group, Codex and IPPC Secretariats, bilateral donors, experts from developing countries, other international/regional organizations playing a role in SPS capacity building, and the private sector. Building on the diverse knowledge from these organizations, the STDF identifies good practice and leverages resources to help developing countries meet international standards, which in turn assists them in participating in global value chains. STDF projects support farmers, processors, traders and governments worldwide. Most projects involve a public private partnership approach.

The Agricultural Marketing Information System (AMIS) is another example of successful collaboration. AMIS is an inter-agency platform established to enhance food market transparency and policy response for food security. Bringing together the principal trading countries of agricultural commodities, AMIS assesses global food supplies, focusing on wheat, maize, rice and soybeans, and provides a platform to coordinate policy action in times of market uncertainty. By enhancing transparency and policy coordination in international food markets, AMIS has helped to prevent unexpected price hikes and strengthen global food security.

Collaboration is difficult and time-consuming.  It can be costly. It takes patience and a willingness to see issues from different perspectives. But only through meaningful efforts to engage with others will we get answers to the questions that will help us identify solutions to pressing challenges.

Concluding remarks

With the world population increasing, there is need to have innovative agricultural systems to ensure adequate food production for all countries and promote their food security.  

The important role of international trade in agricultural products cannot be overemphasised. The rules-based multilateral trading system has contributed significantly to improving access to high quality food for deficit producing countries and in the process enhancing the living standards of many people around the world. 

Digital technologies play an increasingly crucial role both in food production, and in helping the food flow from where it is produced to where it is needed.  Contemporary food value chains are increasingly data driven.  The WTO rules provide ample space for supportive policies and for the much needed investments to improve access to information and knowledge for all.  This policy space combined with new potential trade rules would significantly contribute to enhancing food security, food safety and sustainable production.

I am convinced that by engaging in pragmatic, specific, thoughtful discussions, like we are having here today, we can help develop the way forward for  increased cooperation within an international rules-based system. We can imagine, and then create, new pathways for sustainable agricultural policy reform and inclusive economic growth.  





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