The seven main topics under discussion are: domestic support; market access; export competition; export restrictions; cotton; public stockholding; and the special safeguard mechanism.
Export restrictions and WFP food purchases exemption
Singapore made a statement on its proposal to the General Council, stressing the urgent need to adopt the decision and reaffirming that the “do-no-harm” policy and humanitarian purchases of the World Food Programme (WFP) will not jeopardize the food security of the country where the food is purchased (WT/GC/W/810/Rev.2 and WT/GC/W/811).
Many members — importers and exporters, developed and developing members — voiced strong support for the initiative, arguing “it is the right thing to do” and an opportunity for the WTO to help achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals on zero hunger. Some members, however, voiced concerns regarding a blanket exemption for WFP food purchases due to domestic food security considerations. Singapore asked members to work on compromise language that would help overcome obstacles.
The facilitator for the export restriction pillar, Mr Leonardo Rocha Bento (Brazil), who had held a virtual meeting on this issue in advance of the committee meeting, noted that while there was still technical work to be done, the initiative was a political one which needed support from capital-based officials to achieve the goal.
On the transparency-related issues also being discussed under the topic of export prohibitions and restrictions, the facilitator said he will help identify the scope for discussions on this issue through bilateral and small-group meetings.
Highlighting domestic support in their report as the critical pillar in the agriculture negotiations, the facilitators Mr Greg Macdonald (Canada), Ms Fenny Maharani (Indonesia), and Ms Elisa Olmeda (Mexico) said members remained divided on how to address trade-distorting subsidies. Many members attached importance to Amber Box reform; various developing members insisted that Aggregate Measurement of Support (AMS) spending beyond de minimis limits is the most trade distorting and imbalanced part of the existing Agreement on Agriculture (AoA), and therefore needs to be addressed with the foremost urgency, they reported. Some members also highlighted the importance of transparency in the domestic support discussions.
Moving forward, the facilitators said they will continue technical discussions on some key concepts and proposals. A number of bilateral meetings have been scheduled with interested members in the coming days, they said.
Canada presented its updated analytical tool (JOB/AG/190) that includes domestic support data of all 101 members who have submitted a domestic support notification for 2001 to 2019. The update integrates 176 new notifications submitted between January 2019 and November 2020 and will allow members to do their own analysis.
Meanwhile, Cairns Group members (a group of agriculture-exporting members) recapped the key points of their framework paper submitted in early 2019. This sets a goal of capping and halving trade-distorting domestic support by 2030 and lays out the principle of proportionality, meaning reduction commitments should be proportionate to the size of a member's existing entitlements and its potential to distort global markets. They also answered some frequently asked questions while urging members to continue using the framework as the basis for further discussions. Many other members called for addressing “historical imbalances”, notably by addressing AMS above de minimis.
Members welcomed Canada's submission as a very useful tool and exchanged their views on what they considered as the priority elements for domestic support reforms. The discussions touched upon all categories of subsidies under Article 6 of the Agreement on Agriculture. Some members expressed different understandings regarding the definition of proportionality. A call was made for more out-of-the-box thinking and moving away from entrenched positions. Canada said it will conduct some internal consultations to decide how frequently the analytical tool can be updated.
Market access, export competition and cotton
On market access, the facilitators(Mr Daniel Arboleda (Colombia) and Ms Mariya-Khrystyna Koziy (Ukraine)) reported on the bilateral consultations held since November and the recent technical discussions on document JOB/AG/185/Rev.1 concerning changes of applied tariffs and shipment en route.
The document proposes several policy options that members could use to increase transparency and predictability for traders in cases of changes in applied tariffs. This issue is considered by some to have the potential of a possible outcome at the WTO’s 12th Ministerial Conference (MC12) scheduled for next year.
Noting the lack of readiness among members to engage on core issues such as tariff reductions, Ms Mariya-Khrystyna Koziy said that a post-MC12 work programme was mentioned by several members as a potential outcome although members held different views with regard to the level of ambition, timing, coverage and linkages with negotiations in other pillars.
Developing members also raised concerns about non-tariff barriers such as sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) measures and technical barriers to trade (TBT), she said. The COVID-19 pandemic had increased developing members' concerns regarding food security and may further constrain their ability to accept additional commitments in the negotiations, she added. Moving ahead, the facilitator said she will try to narrow down the topics and focus discussions on the most doable elements.
On export competition, recent work has been focused on transparency aspects, the facilitator(Ms Laura Gauer (Switzerland)) said, while recognizing that some members had expressed concerns with possible new requirements due to their resource constraints. She referred to further exchanges with the proponents of document JOB/AG/184 to explore ways to move forward, including with the assistance of the WTO Secretariat. She also noted that complementary processes were taking place in the regular committee meetings. More bilateral exchanges on this topic will take place, she said.
The facilitators on the cotton pillar, Mr Sergio Carvalho (Brazil) and Mr Emmanuel Ouali (Burkina Faso), confirmed their intention to start work by focusing on transparency. A paper on that topic by the Cotton-4 group (Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali) is in the making and will be made available before the next “quad-plus” meeting (a negotiation forum for Cotton-4 and major cotton traders) that could take place possibly by late January or early February, Mr Sergio Carvalho said.
During the meeting, proponents of the “shipment en route” paper stressed the paper only serves as a starting point for discussions. They agreed there would be no “one-size-fits-all” solution and remain open to members’ suggestions. They highlighted the proposal provides a “menu of options” for members. Therefore, it will not pose any difficulties to members’ existing customs regimes.
Non-proponents said market access is not a top priority and should be addressed after domestic support (reducing trade-distorting subsidies). Meanwhile, some developing groups asked members to redouble efforts in the cotton negotiations, with the aim of achieving meaningful outcomes at MC12.
Dedicated session on public stockholding (PSH)
The report of the facilitator(Mr Craig Gouglas (Jamaica)) on PSH highlighted “the genuine interest in the topic”. It noted some ideas brought to the table in recent consultations, including keeping a list of qualifying products, a spending cap on PSH programmes in terms of value of production, a quota for purchasing imported goods and a mechanism to ensure the food stocks do not spill into the global market.
The facilitator said more technical discussions will take place in the new year, with the focus on scope, transparency, safeguards and monitoring. Finally, the facilitator proposed a list of questions for members to reflect on during the holiday period. Proponents and supporting members highlighted the serious food security issues arising from the pandemic and called for members' engagement on the topic in its own right with the aim of achieving a meaningful outcome by MC12.
Dedicated session on the special safeguard mechanism (SSM)
The facilitator, Ms Renata Cristaldo Oviedo (Paraguay), reported that members generally agreed that more time is needed on this pillar to prepare for technical discussions. Moving forward, she proposed a two-tiered process to work with proponents and non-proponents in parallel until enough progress has been made on technical issues to bring them together. The most difficult issue, the SSM's linkage to market access, will not be discussed in the technical discussion stage, she said.
As part of the preparatory work for the next step, the WTO Secretariat made a presentation outlining the mandate, main elements discussed and past proposals on the SSM issue. Summarized information on past submissions and some specific questions targeting both proponents and non-proponents will be shared with members before the year-end to prepare the ground for technical engagement in the new year, said the facilitator. Some developing members reiterated the mandate and argued for prioritizing an outcome on the SSM at MC12.
Overall evaluation of the chair
The chair outlined the developments in the new facilitator-led process since she assumed the role of chair in July. She emphasized the purpose of the process is not to seek an immediate change of members' positions or address the linkages between topics. Instead, the process aims to “help clarify the issues, encourage analytical work, search for pragmatic ways to narrow gaps, advance where possible, and identify realistic landing zones,” she said.
She highlighted several uncertainties surrounding the negotiation process, including the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the date of the next Ministerial Conference as well as the appointment of the next WTO Director General. “We should therefore remain pragmatic and agile and avoid building castles in the air with any long-term planning,” she said.
She believed that the situation could become clearer in the first months of 2021 regarding both the process going forward as well as the possible elements for an agricultural outcome at MC12. In conclusion, she suggested continuing the facilitators-led process in the coming weeks and carrying out a collective evaluation at the beginning of 2021.
The next agriculture negotiations meeting is scheduled for 5 February 2021.
Background information on the work of the Committee on Agriculture is available here.
The agriculture glossary is available here.