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The event, which brought together agriculture ministers and top officials from around the world, was organized to launch the FAO’s State of Agricultural Commodity Markets 2020 report. This edition of the report examines how well-functioning agricultural markets can contribute to meeting the UN Sustainable Development Goals of ending hunger and malnutrition by 2030 while increasing smallholder incomes and making food production systems more sustainable.

In his remarks to the online audience, DDG Wolff emphasized the role of trade as a transmission mechanism for moving food from where it is abundant to where it is scarce, and the importance of trade policy — and the WTO framework of rules — as a means to create predictable and competitive market conditions for farmers.

DDG Wolff praised the report for drawing attention to the importance of markets and trade for agriculture and food security. Citing data indicating that international trade in food already feeds one in six people worldwide, he said that the importance of trade in foodstuffs would further increase in the years ahead, as the climate crisis disrupts agricultural production and water availability.

Global agriculture trade has doubled in real terms since 1995, when WTO rules for agriculture entered into effect. However, many regions and producers are currently ill-positioned to tap into international commerce. DDG Wolff noted that comparing maps of global hunger and agricultural trade suggests that the regions that lacked functioning markets and had limited national, regional and international trade were precisely those marked by some of the highest rates of hunger and poverty. “Poor trade infrastructure” leads to high transaction costs and prevents farmers in the developing world, particularly smallholders, from benefitting more fully from international trade.

DDG Wolff set out a multi-pronged agenda for maximizing trade’s contribution to food security in the coming decade. Keeping markets broadly open would allow global value chains to keep functioning and help prevent price spikes. He praised governments for starting to roll back the agricultural export restrictions that some had introduced early in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Trade negotiations at the WTO are of immense importance to the future of global agriculture. “While continued agricultural trade policy reform at the WTO may seem hard, and may sometimes seem discouragingly slow, progress is essential,” he said. “Deeper engagement on the basis of serious proposals is needed to begin the process of finding solutions in which all participate.”

DDG Wolff also made the case that efficient farm production and trade has to rely on open trade in other sectors, from industrial products such as fertilizer to services like logistics, insurance and weather forecasting. These policy efforts would be usefully complemented by aid for trade to overcome supply-side constraints on infrastructure and standards compliance, he added.

Finally, he emphasized something close to the heart of FAO Director General Qu Dongyu, namely the right of farmers to benefit more fully from the global digital economy. He said: “The e-commerce talks at the WTO that are currently underway are vitally important to all of those engaged in agriculture.”

DDG Wolff's full speech is available here.

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