The chair of WTO agriculture negotiations Ambassador Gloria Abraham Peralta (Costa Rica) urged members at meetings on 23 and 28 April to determine the level of ambition and priority elements that would shape the chair’s first draft negotiating text so it can be circulated before the summer recess and in the run-up to the 12th Ministerial Conference later this year. She encouraged members to advance technical discussions in the time left for the facilitator-led process before the committee moves to a high-level negotiating phase in June.
WTO members reviewed facilitators' updates on the full range of agriculture negotiation topics, including domestic support, market access, export competition, export restrictions, cotton, public stockholding for food security purposes and the proposed special safeguard mechanism. The facilitator-led process is an informal approach for topic-by-topic technical discussions initiated by the chair last September.
New submissions and members' discussions
Members discussed two new papers: the United States' fifth analytical paper on market access, with a focus on special agricultural safeguards ( SSG, JOB/AG/192); and a joint paper from Japan and co-sponsors (Japan, Israel, South Korea, Liechtenstein, Switzerland and Chinese Taipei) on the scope for possible discussions on export prohibitions and restrictions (JOB/AG/193). The US said the purpose of its proposal is for members to deepen understanding on SSG issues and further discussions that might be required. Japan stressed its intention is to improve transparency on export-restrictive measures rather than deny members' right to deploy this temporary tool in emergencies like the current pandemic.
Members generally agree that an outcome for the 12th Ministerial Conference (MC12) could take the form of a mix of immediate deliverables and guidelines for post MC12 work reflected in a framework agreement or work programme. Many members focused their interventions on two substantive themes: slimming down the trade-distorting domestic support entitlements (scope, framework, principles, etc); and addressing food security issues, exacerbated by the current pandemic.
Members highlighted various topics, such as a permanent solution for public food stockholding programmes of developing countries (PSH), an export restriction exemption for World Food Programme (WFP) humanitarian food purchases and enhanced transparency for export restrictions on foodstuffs, as well as results on a special safeguard mechanism to curb import surges and price drops, and cotton.
Other potential “immediate results” could include improving the transparency of members' applied tariffs, especially for shipments en route and various other transparency enhancing elements under the three pillars of domestic support, export competition and market access.
Some members argued for an outcome focused on transparency at MC12 in view of the remaining divergences on some fundamental questions, while some others considered this would fall short of the required level of ambition for agriculture at MC12. Several developing members reiterated their strong concerns regarding possible new transparency requirements in view of their capacity constraints. Some developing country members continued to argue for progress on domestic support prior to embarking on market access reforms.
Members will need to be prepared for tough talks ahead on cutting trade-distorting domestic support, which is widely considered a top priority, the chair said. Currently, members are still discussing what types of support are trade distorting and the principles for reducing support, among other things.
While proponents called for a permanent solution for PSH, which they consider to be a useful tool for coping with challenges such as climate change and hunger, others sought improved transparency and some proposed to look for an “alternative solution”. Few members argued that PSH should be considered as part of the overall reform of domestic support disciplines.
Many members reiterated their support for a decision on exemption from export restriction for World Food Programme (WFP) humanitarian food purchases and enhanced transparency for export restrictions on foodstuffs. Some developing country members expressed the hope this could be achieved by building on the negotiations in December 2020, provided domestic food security concerns were appropriately addressed.
Several members supported the approach developed by Japan and co-sponsors to look at ways to encourage compliance with existing notification requirements and enhance transparency on export restriction measures, with a view to enhancing predictability and reducing price volatility at a time of global food insecurity. Some members stressed the importance of this tool to address domestic food shortages in compliance with WTO disciplines. Several developing country members stressed the need to find a balance between addressing importing members' food security and capacity constraints faced by developing countries.
Regarding a special safeguard mechanism (SSM), the G33 (a group of developing members) has been conducting a review of past SSM documents and draft modalities to calibrate its ambition. Indonesia floated the idea of constructing an SSM based on the elements of the existing SSG, given the time constraint for discussion before MC12.
The Cotton-4 countries (Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mali), supported by several members, welcomed the discussions on how to enhance transparency. The group also stressed that its priority remained the question of cotton-related domestic support, which had to be addressed in a progressive manner with short, middle and long-term results.
As the agriculture negotiations gradually move into the critical stage, with MC12 only five months away, the chair said she would consider engaging heads of delegation in discussions at some point to garner political impetus.
On domestic support, the facilitators — Mr Greg MacDonald (Canada), Ms Fenny Maharani (Indonesia) and Ms Elisa Olmeda (Mexico) — reported on the two recent technical discussions in the open-ended meetings dedicated to trade-distorting support and to provisions under Article 6 and Annex 2 (green box) of the Agreement on Agriculture. They also briefed on Brazil's presentation of its work on Article 6.2 (development box) and blue box; Article 6.5 (blue box). Members' active engagement reaffirmed their continued commitment to addressing trade-distorting domestic support despite divergences, they said. The next technical meeting in May will cover cross-cutting issues, such as transparency, special and differential treatment for developing countries, proportionality, and per-farmer support. Various forms of consultations will also take place in parallel to help clarify options for MC12, they added.
On market access, the facilitator — Mariya-Khrystyna Koziy (Ukraine) — recalled members' preliminary discussions on the United States' new analytical paper on Special Agricultural Safeguards (SSGs). More technical sessions have been scheduled for May to, among other things, consider work by a group of members on a market access reform framework. While continuing her consultations, she asked for members' concrete ideas and proposals to contribute to a balanced result at MC12.
On export competition, the facilitator — Ms Laura Gauer (Switzerland) — disclosed her plan to convene a meeting with the African, Pacific and Caribbean countries, African and LDC Group Coordinators, and proponents to better understand the requests for enhanced transparency by the proponents as well as developing members' concerns regarding notification burdens. She invited all interested members to join the meeting. She noted that the recent discussions in the regular committee meeting in the context of the second triennial review of the Nairobi Decision could support deeper understanding on how to enhance transparency requirements.
The facilitator on export restrictions, Mr Leonardo Rocha Bento (Brazil), provided an update on transparency and the proposed WFP exemption. He recapped the discussions on the joint paper by Japan and co-sponsors on how to improve transparency on export restrictions, including in the wake of the pandemic. He urged proponents of the WFP initiative and other members to intensify direct talks, with the aim of finding compromise language to overcome the impasse.
The facilitators on cotton, Mr Sergio Carvalho (Brazil) and Mr Emmanuel Ouali (Burkina Faso), said discussions on cotton-related transparency were continuing and they will explore whether a concrete proposal can be envisaged by the end of May.
The facilitator on PSH, Mr Craig Douglas (Jamaica), reported to members on the thorough discussions regarding public stockholding-related transparency in a recent meeting. Members examined every aspect of the notification requirements stipulated by the Bali Ministerial decision, balancing the importance of transparency for informing the discussions towards a permanent solution and a strong call to heed the challenges and onerous burdens on developing countries, he said. The facilitator recalled that the next technical meeting will focus on anti-circumvention and safeguard provisions.
Regarding the special safeguard mechanism, the facilitator, Ms Renata Cristaldo Oviedo (Paraguay), said she will organize a thematic meeting in May based on members' inputs on specific themes identified in past SSM discussions. Considering the imminent conclusion of the facilitator process, and in the absence of specific inputs, she will consider fostering discussions among members in a question and answer format to identify the level of ambition and the potential landing zones for MC12.
Overall evaluation of the chair
The chair commended the “stimulating” work of all facilitators. She noted the considerable work done in advancing the technical discussions on domestic support, both holistically as well as in the “deep dives” into each box of support. She invited members to table more analysis papers to promote creativity and enhance mutual understanding of this important topic.
The chair supported facilitators' efforts to seek concrete ways to enhance transparency related to export competition by addressing non-proponents' concerns on additional burdensome requirements. She noted the developments in the context of the regular Committee on Agriculture, which could inform the discussions at the negotiating forum. The chair also welcomed the discussions following the introduction of the paper by Japan and co-sponsors and endorsed the facilitators' work on collaborating with proponents and non-proponents to arrive at compromise language on the WFP exemption. She acknowledged the direction taken in cotton to work towards a possible outcome on enhancing cotton-related transparency and noted the comment made by some members on the need for balance between data usefulness and data collection burdens.
The chair confirmed that transparency is a crucial component for any potential solutions on public stockholding and said she is confident that “a mutually agreeable solution” is within reach through concerted efforts. Regarding the special safeguard mechanism, the chair said the political impediment of linking SSM with market access remains to be overcome and that any breakthrough on this politically charged topic will hinge on the technical maturity achieved at members' discussions. She encouraged members to deliberate pragmatically on the MC12 deliverables and the guidance they hope to get from ministers for post-MC12 work.
Citing DG Okonjo-Iweala's call for “a recipe for success”, the chair asked members to produce the recipe by changing the nature of their engagement and by avoiding the repetition of entrenched positions. She urged them to exercise flexibility with new ideas and to mobilize political will. She also indicated her plan to issue two documents in the coming months: a state of play report based on facilitators' factual reports; and a first draft negotiating text for a possible outcome at MC12.
The next meetings are scheduled for 25 May and the second half of June 2021.
Background information on the work of the Committee on Agriculture is available here.
The agriculture glossary is available here.