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The committee meeting was the first in-person meeting held at the WTO since the lockdown. It was supplemented by a virtual platform, allowing WTO members to also participate remotely. The meeting was “well attended”, with 55 delegations registering for physical attendance and 215 participants joining online, said the Chair, Christiane Daleiden Distefano from Luxembourg.

Initiatives and statements on COVID-19 crisis

WTO members introduced their recent initiatives to safeguard food security through “open and predictable trade” amidst the COVID-19 crisis. This included a Canadian-led joint statement (WT/GC/208/Rev.2-G/AG/30/Rev.2), a Cairns Group initiative (WT/GC/218, G/AG/31, TN/AG/44) and an Ottawa Group statement (WT/GC/217). The Cairns Group is a group of agriculture-exporting members and the Ottawa Group describes itself as a small group of WTO members that supports reforms to address the challenges of the multilateral trading system. 

Japan and the European Union (G/AG/GEN/159) contributed respectively with a statement on export restriction monitoring and with an ad hoc report on COVID-19 measures in the agriculture sector.

Many co-sponsors expressed their full support for the Canada-led joint statement, in which they vowed to refrain from imposing trade-restrictive measures that “would ultimately have negative impacts on the food security, nutrition and health of members and their populations”. The African Group stressed the multiple challenges facing Africa and insisted on maintaining policy space under Article 6.2 of the Agreement on Agriculture to support low-income or resource-poor farmers.  The African, Caribbean and Pacific group of members, meanwhile, expressed concerns over the adoption of export restrictions, large stimulus packages and other measures that could aggravate the impact of the pandemic by “incentivizing imbalances in global agricultural trade”.

Building on the general principles of ensuring that COVID-19 related export-restrictive measures are “targeted, proportionate, transparent, temporary and consistent with the WTO rules”, the Cairns Group initiative proposed greater WTO scrutiny of COVID-19 agriculture support measures, including tracking by the WTO Secretariat, regular discussions in the Committee on Agriculture and a voluntary, member-driven WTO COVID-19 Agricultural Working Group. Echoing the call by the Cairns Group for open and functional international trade markets to support global food security, another member stressed the pitfalls of pursuing self-sufficiency policies in agriculture. Meanwhile, a developed WTO member asked co-sponsors to “walk the talk” and submit ad hoc reports on their COVID-19 measures to the committee for the sake of transparency.

Looking forward, 13 WTO members vowed in the Ottawa Group statement to take trade policy actions that would support an inclusive, sustainable and resilient recovery and agreed that trade rules should be adapted or developed to guide collaborative policy responses to future global crises. The group called for collective actions towards open and predictable agricultural trade and for WTO members “to lead by example” and withdraw trade-restrictive COVID-19 measures as quickly as possible. Several members echoed this call and said it is high time for the WTO to deploy concrete actions as described in the Ottawa action plan.

Japan and the European Union made statements ramping up their push for improved transparency. Japan noted the backlog of notifications on many COVID-19 related export-restrictive measures. It urged members to make timely notifications, clarify reasons for the delays and withdraw temporary export-restrictive measures as soon as possible.

The EU gave a broad brush of its ad hoc report (G/AG/GEN/159) encompassing all COVID-19 related agriculture-specific measures, urging members to follow suit as well as notify their export-restrictive measures. “Transparency and disciplines on export restrictions will be a key element for our negotiations going forward towards the 12th Ministerial Conference,” it said. The EU also underlined the need for members to respect existing WTO commitments and warned against the sizable subsidy packages being implemented during the COVID-19 crisis which “risk breaching existing domestic support limits”. The EU also referred to a joint task force with the African Union and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization to support the agri-food sector in Africa and help it deal with the impact of COVID-19.

Several members took the floor to share information on their COVID-19 measures introduced to weather the impact of the crisis on agriculture. One developing member, however, cautioned against the “narrative” pushed by some members that seeks to prohibit the use of export restrictions on medical and agricultural products or to push for a “permanent” tariff liberalization in response to a “temporary” crisis. It insisted that for developing countries, export restrictions are a WTO-consistent policy tool that are important to prevent critical domestic shortages of essential supplies. It asked members to formulate a “balanced, inclusive and calibrated” response to COVID-19 and to focus on addressing the historical asymmetries in aggregate measurement of support (AMS) entitlements.

COVID-19 farm support packages called into question

Nearly 60 questions were raised with regard to members’ COVID-19 agriculture-related measures (G/AG/W/206). In addition to seeking clarifications on export-restrictive measures, many questions were raised regarding major economies’ large farm support packages in response to the crisis.

A large number of questions were targeted at the United States and its US$ 19 billion Coronavirus Food Assistance Program launched on 17 April 2020, which includes US$ 16 billion in direct support to farmers and ranchers. The US said it has uploaded all answers to the WTO's Agriculture Information Management System (searchable by the public) and the programmes will be notified in its 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 notifications “consistent with the WTO rules”. The US claimed the programme does not distort producers’ planting decisions since it applies to production (or inventories) during a previous period.

Members welcomed the US replies and highlighted their deep concerns over the size of the package. Some members asked for more clarifications on the category of subsidies that would be specified for this significant volume of budget. Some suggested the US roll back the measures since they are “temporary” as it indicated. The US said it is still going through the process and cannot foresee how the programme will be notified. It said it will review all the new questions and respond accordingly.

Canada answered questions regarding its multiple COVID-19 measures. On the CAD$ 50 million Surplus Food Purchase Program, it said the purpose is to dispose of food identified as in surplus supply. In view of halting the disposal of the surplus supply of raw milk, Canada also increased the borrowing limit of the Canadian Dairy Commission from CAD$ 300 million to CAD$ 500 million to provide further flexibility to its operations. It said the products purchased under this initiative would be sold back to dairy processors at the same price. Coming to the EU’s COVID-19 support measures, the EU reiterated that its market measures are carefully targeted within a limited budget — less than EUR 80 million — for merely ensuring the farming sector has sufficient liquidity. It said all the new support packages continue to respect its WTO commitments on domestic support. The support for rural development is designed to ensure it will qualify as Green Box subsidies. The temporary derogations from anti-trust competition law have been adopted to allow operators to work together to stabilize markets.

Australia, New Zealand and Japan also answered questions regarding their respective international airfreight support programmes. The concerned countries highlighted that the measure seeks to support the aviation companies in view of a dramatic reduction in air freight capacity resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic in order to keep some critical international supply chains operational. It was also clarified that support was not channelled to individual exporters.

Export-restrictive measures under review

Members expressed appreciation to four members (Kyrgyz Republic, North Macedonia, Thailand and Ukraine,) who have notified their export-restrictive measures to the WTO and asked follow-up questions.

Thailand said its export restrictions on rice were effective from 26 March to 30 April. They were meant to be temporary and the measure was notified to the WTO. Ukraine clarified that no export restriction on wheat had been applied since 2011-2012 and the Memorandum of Understanding for 2019-2020 of 30 March 2020 between the Ministry for Development of the Economy and the private grain participants was not binding. As regards the export prohibitions applied on buckwheat, Ukraine maintained that it was not subject to advance notice obligation stipulated in Article 12 of the Agreement on Agriculture in view of being a developing country and not being a net-exporter of buckwheat. North Macedonia also explained that, as a net importer of wheat, it adopted export restrictions on wheat and meslin in reaction to neighbouring Serbia’s export prohibitions on wheat flour and to prevent critical shortages of these products.

Members also reviewed other members’ export-restrictive measures, including those of Cambodia, Egypt, El Salvador, Honduras, Kazakhstan, Myanmar, Romania, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkey and Viet Nam. Questions primarily related to the absence of notifications and the justification for invoking the concerned measures.

93rd committee meeting and COVID-19 information session

The chair thanked members for a lively and constructive discussion and emphasized the importance of the review function of the committee. Looking ahead, members agreed that the suspended 93rd meeting of the Committee on Agriculture would be resumed on 28 July 2020 as the pandemic lockdown is eased. Meanwhile, the WTO Secretariat was asked to organize an information session on COVID-19 and agriculture by inviting the relevant international organizations engaged in the monitoring of agricultural policies during the pandemic to present their work to members. It was also noted that COVID-19 and agriculture would become a standing agenda item for future meetings.

Members commended the WTO Secretariat’s work in tracking all trade-related measures on its dedicated COVID-19 webpage. The Secretariat also took note of some members’ suggestion to facilitate an easy identification of agriculture-related measures through enhancements in the WTO's trade monitoring linked to the consolidated COVID-19 database.

Find out more

More background on the WTO Committee on Agriculture
https://bit.ly/2YdyXXq

Agriculture negotiations glossary
https://bit.ly/2AWrOBu

WTO groups
https://bit.ly/37VV8of

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COVID-19 farm support packages and export-restrictive measures under scrutiny

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