New facilitator-led process
Members generally welcomed the facilitator-led process launched by the Chair, Ambassador Gloria Abraham Peralta (Costa Rica), to get the negotiations back on track. A strong call was made by many to focus the new talks on submission-based technical discussions rather than starting the process from scratch. In this regard, some members referred to the former Chair's options paper as a good starting point while others sought to go beyond this. Some developing members also raised the issue of transparency and inclusiveness, asking facilitators to adjust the timing and frequency of meetings to accommodate the limited capacity of small delegations.
The Chair praised the facilitators' diligent work despite the new restrictions on in-person meetings imposed by the Geneva authorities as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. She emphasized that the main objective of the new process is to use the facilitators' informal dialogues with members to help clarify issues and assist the Chair with technical work while underscoring the core principles of inclusiveness, transparency and neutrality. She also stressed the new process should be targeted and build upon the extensive work undertaken in recent months, taking into consideration COVID-19 related developments.
Eleven facilitators are leading the informal discussions on seven key topics. There is a particular emphasis on meeting in small groups and bilaterally. The facilitators are:
- Mr Greg Macdonald (Canada), Ms Fenny Maharani (Indonesia) and Ms Elisa Olmeda (Mexico) for domestic support;
- Mr Craig Douglas (Jamaica) for public stockholding;
- Mr Daniel Arboleda (Colombia) and Ms Mariya-Khrystyna Koziy (Ukraine) for market access;
- Ms Renata Cristaldo Oviedo (Paraguay) for the Special Safeguard Mechanism;
- Ms Laura Gauer (Switzerland) for export competition;
- Mr Leonardo Rocha Bento (Brazil) for export restrictions;
- Mr Sergio Carvalho (Brazil) and Mr Emmanuel Ouali (Burkina Faso) for cotton.
The facilitators reported on their discussions.
On domestic support, the facilitators summarized the key points from about 20 bilateral meetings with members held in November. They said that in their recent consultations members expressed general support for the facilitator-led process and underscored that it should be balanced, inclusive and transparent. Some members cautioned that the new process should focus on members' submissions.
The facilitators noted that all members highlighted the need to address trade-distorting domestic support but held different views on what new disciplines on domestic support should look like. Some elements considered as key to successfully moving the negotiations forward to the 12th Ministerial Conference (MC12) included the need to build trust among members and the need for flexibility in members' positions. The facilitators said several documents were specifically singled out by members as a good basis to deepen the technical discussions. These included documents submitted by the Cairns Group, China and India, and the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group.
The facilitators said members provided different views on how to address imbalances and growing distortions in domestic support and highlighted the need to have clarity on certain key concepts. For example, the notion of “proportionality” (meaning members with bigger trade-distortive potential should make bigger reduction commitments) needs to be defined and further discussed based on the different ideas of members. The importance of special and differential treatment for developing members and least developed countries (LDCs) was also reiterated by some members.
Regarding members' views on the challenges of COVID-19 for the negotiations, some members expressed concerns about the huge amount of domestic subsidies provided to farmers by certain members. Some raised food security concerns and underscored the need to have the means and policy space to respond to future crises. Some members highlighted the need to continue reform in agriculture, including by capping and reducing trade-distorting domestic support. The need for transparency and timely notifications on domestic support measures taken in response to the crisis was also stressed.
In conclusion, the facilitators indicated their intention to have an initial discussion with all members interested in domestic support, with the goal of building trust among members.
On market access, the facilitators said their goal is to foster informal dialogue in order to identify a clear starting point for the discussions. They highlighted the guiding principle of transparency, inclusiveness and neutrality. Due to the limited time since taking up their posts, they had met with only some of the delegations that indicated interest in the issue. The facilitators noted that members expressed concerns about external factors affecting the negotiations, such as the selection of the new WTO Director-General, the date for MC12 and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Also in their consultations, members agreed that they should not start from zero. Some members suggested that building on the former Chair’s reports could be an option. Based on their consultations, the facilitators confirmed that the process should be based on technical analytical work put forward by members. They welcomed members' new submissions and ideas. The facilitators said they will conduct separate meetings with like-minded groups of proponents and non-proponents respectively. They would then move towards group discussions involving the most active proponents or non-proponents.
On export competition, the facilitator said she had bilateral exchanges with a number of members to seek their views on the process for the talks and the starting point for the negotiations. She noted that some members referred to the former Chair's options paper and a proposal from Canada, Norway and Switzerland as a realistic starting point for future discussions. Many members said there was therefore no rush in this area of the negotiations. While proponents confirmed their willingness to further engage on technical questions, some members noted their priority would be on other areas in the agriculture negotiations.
The facilitator urged members to consult with capitals to provide input and feedback on the document from Canada, Norway and Switzerland as she continues to communicate with interested members. While some members stressed the importance of enhancing transparency, several developing countries raised concerns during the meeting regarding possible additional burdensome requirements.
On export restrictions, the facilitator said he met with some proponents and non-proponents. It seems clear that there are two axes of work, he said. The first is the proposed decision to exempt the WFP's food purchases for humanitarian purposes from any export restrictions. Most members seem to agree that there is positive momentum to get the decision adopted by the General Council meeting in December, he said. The second is transparency, where there appears to be less consensus on how to move forward and where future discussions will highly depend on further inputs by proponents and non-proponents.
The facilitator said he would continue his consultations, with a focus in the coming weeks on the WFP decision. He would start group discussions in different configurations as soon as new contributions are circulated.
On cotton, the facilitators said they believed a fresh approach would be needed to jump-start the negotiations. Members should be ambitious, but not overly ambitious, they said. Transparency could be the issue that brings everyone to the table.
The facilitators were aware that sticking to issues and formulas that did not work in the past or calling for meetings without clear goals would not work. They intended to schedule a “quad-plus” meeting (a meeting with the Cotton-4 — Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mali — and several major cotton trading members ) in the near future and hoped to be in a position to engage in text-based discussions to start bridging gaps.
On public stockholding (PSH), the facilitator said he held bilateral meetings with several delegations, both proponents and non-proponents. He asked members a set of questions in the first round of consultations about their key challenges and priorities, the Bali Interim decision and the ways to make progress on this issue, he said.
Admitting that PSH is a difficult issue which requires compromise and flexibility, the facilitator pointed to several “promising signs” that make him believe an outcome on PSH is doable. This includes the willingness of all consulted members to engage constructively and their view that the impact of COVID-19 may provide an opportunity to further explore the relevance of PSH programmes.
The facilitator shared his first observations regarding the key divergencies on the topic. For example, some members consider that the PSH negotiations are separate and independent, whereas others argue that the topic should not be discussed in a vacuum but should be linked to the ongoing discussions on domestic support, he said.
The facilitator expressed his intention to find a way to reconcile positions. He said members indicated that more work needs to be done on the issue of transparency and safeguards and addressing non-proponents' concerns regarding export of accumulated stockpiles. He said some members believed that discussions on PSH should commence with a broad understanding of how members can best achieve food security, the challenges that currently exist for global food security, and how WTO rules can be used to address these issues in the least trade-distorting manner. Members also raised the questions of what products should be covered by a future PSH agreement and whether it should include new programmes adopted after the Bali Decision, he said.
The facilitator expressed readiness to conduct some technical work to facilitate further discussions.
On the special safeguard mechanism (SSM), the facilitator noted the hope of some members that the process would be driven by new inputs. Other members noted that principles of transparency and inclusiveness should guide the discussion throughout the process, he said. On substance, proponents stressed the need for an easy tool in dealing with import volume surges and price drops.
Proponents highlighted that the SSM was a mandated issue that should progress on its own merits, the facilitator said, whereas linkages with both market access and domestic support were raised by non-proponents. Some non-proponents think the idea presented by the previous Chair in his last report would be a good starting point, while several proponents warned that this would not provide the solution they are seeking, he said. Instead, they considered past G33 submissions as a better starting point for the discussions.
The facilitator plans to continue consultations with more members to reconcile the different positions, with the aim of developing an action plan.
About 40 delegations including several group coordinators took the floor remotely. Members' overall views about the negotiations generally reflected past positions, with several members stressing the need to factor in the lessons learnt from the COVID-19 crisis, notably in relation to export restrictions, domestic support, PSH or the SSM.
One member suggested that the new process should focus on technical discussions and nurture “new and constructive dialogue and information sharing”, which are key to “help strengthen the foundation for progress in the negotiations”. It said that members' effort should be prioritized on outcomes that are realistic and doable for MC12. It believed that an outcome on transparency was achievable. This could pave the way towards wider and deeper outcomes in the future.
One member pointed out the priorities for the negotiations should be export restrictions and transparency, which have gained new importance in the COVID-19 crisis. They are more likely to garner convergence among members, and potentially constitute candidates for outcomes at MC12, it said. It also highlighted the need to reflect on how to apply a sustainability agenda in the agriculture talks, as sustainability and resilience must play a prominent role in both WTO reform and post-COVID-19 recovery efforts.
Many members again highlighted that domestic support was their priority in the negotiations. Australia and several other members made reference to the Cairns Group’s Framework for Negotiations on Domestic Support proposal (JOB/AG/177). Other members stressed the top priority should be to eliminate aggregate measurement of support (AMS) entitlement beyond “de minimis” allowances to level the playing field, as this entitlement is only enjoyed by a select group of members. With regard to the “proportional contributions” to farm support reduction, one member suggested using data based on “per farmer” support rather than in aggregate terms, for which it will submit a technical paper for further discussion. It also suggested conducting an analysis of cumulative per-farmer agriculture support that has been provided by WTO members from 1995 to the present, with those responsible for the biggest distortions in the past making the biggest contributions to reducing support.
On process, several members expressed their support for the facilitators-led process but noted the need to learn from the working group process in 2019 and to take into consideration the constraints faced by small delegations. Some members suggested prioritizing the issues and/or having focused discussions based on specific inputs including data-driven analytical work. These views were also reflected in the facilitators' reports.
Singapore proposal on exemption from export restrictions
Singapore relaunched its decade-long pursuit for a decision to exempt purchases of the World Food Programme (WFP) for humanitarian purposes from any export restrictions. It intended to table soon a draft decision in the hope that the General Council could adopt it at its December meeting.
Singapore laid out three reasons to push for urgent adoption of the decision in December. First, Singapore said, this decision is about saving lives. An additional 270 million people are at risk of acute food insecurity due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Seven million people are estimated to have already died this year from hunger, and another 3.5 million could die before next June.
Second, while the WTO is facing many challenges, adoption of this decision will show that the organization is relevant. It would also build confidence ahead of the WTO's next Ministerial Conference (MC12) so that members can achieve outcomes on other important issues at the meeting.
Third, it will demonstrate the WTO is working to address the COVID-19 pandemic.
The initiative gained support from more than 50 members who acknowledged its urgency. A few members expressed some concerns regarding the potential impact of such a decision on the food security of the countries where the food was procured. One member noted that it was therefore supportive of an exemption of WFP purchases from export restrictions on a case-by-case basis.
At the meeting, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the WFP made presentations on the impact of COVID-19 and measures related to food insecurity and food assistance programmes. The FAO outlined the impact on agricultural markets of the COVID-19 crisis and the subsequent policy responses as well as the major medium-term risks and implications.
The WFP highlighted the severe hunger in many regions, with 138 million people targeted this year as beneficiaries of food assistance, a record high. It underlined the impact of COVID-19 on the WFP's supply chain, including how export restrictions hinder its humanitarian aid efforts. This has resulted in higher costs, delays in procuring food and lost lives. It also answered questions from members, stressing its “do-no-harm” guiding principle for procurement, aimed at anticipating and preventing any potential negative impact of its procurement activities on local markets.
The chair thanked all the facilitators for their work and encouraged members to continue engaging in the new process in a constructive spirit. The next agriculture negotiation meeting is scheduled for 7 December. Facilitators will continue their informal consultations with members and report back their findings at the next meeting.
More information on the work of the Committee on Agriculture is available here.
Agriculture glossary is here.