“The coming weeks are critical for our process,” said the Chair of the WTO agriculture negotiations, Ambassador Gloria Abraham Peralta (Costa Rica), as she wrapped up the two days of talks.
The Chair posed questions to guide the discussions on domestic support, public stockholding programmes for food security purposes, and the proposed “special safeguard mechanism” that would enable developing countries to raise tariffs temporarily in the event of an import surge or price depression. Members also reviewed two new negotiating submissions, one on domestic support and the other on cotton and continued discussions on the other topics.
Focused discussions on domestic support
In response to the questions from the Chair, more than 30 WTO members took the floor to share their views on the appropriate level of ambition on domestic support for the Ministerial Conference, and on how best to arrive at a consensus on the negotiating text.
Several developed and developing members supported the draft negotiating text, which they saw as a good starting point for the negotiations. In their view, it was unlikely for members to conclude a comprehensive blueprint for reducing domestic support at the upcoming conference given the short time remaining. Members should instead seek to agree on a work programme that would clearly define the main parameters for the subsequent negotiations, including the timeline, scope and principles for reduction commitments in order to achieve the goal of halving the global domestic support entitlements by 2030. These members emphasized that all types of domestic support under Article 6 of the Agreement on Agriculture should be included for discussion, but not necessarily treated in the same manner, and that members should make reductions that are proportionate to their contributions to the problem of trade distortion.
Some members emphasized the need to aim for what is achievable by MC12. They highlighted the importance of improving transparency and encouraged the Chair to include more transparency-related provisions in the draft text. Some members stressed the importance of reaching a balanced package across the board at the Ministerial Conference. One of these members emphasised that an outcome on market access would be key to this end. Some members also stressed that a result on domestic support should not prejudge the final outcome.
Meanwhile, several members expressed their concern that the draft negotiating text did not take due account of a recent submission by the African Group, which sought to eliminate trade-distorting support exceeding the “de minimis” threshold, which is expressed as a share of the value of production. They restated their view that reducing this type of support is their top priority and a necessary first step towards levelling the playing field.
The Chair said the intense discussions on this topic showed it lies at the very heart of the negotiations on agriculture. With fewer than 10 weeks left before the Ministerial Conference, members needed to intensify their engagement further, and move to text-based negotiations as soon as possible, she said. She also encouraged members to table new proposals that would help to bridge the gaps between them and pave the way for a meaningful result at the conference.
India presented a new negotiating submission, which called for the elimination of trade-distorting support that exceeds members’ agreed “de minimis” thresholds. Citing data, India’s new submission argued that support which exceeds de minimis levels offers additional flexibilities to a sub-set of WTO members, and enables them to concentrate domestic support on certain products.
Several developing members supported India and encouraged the Chair to incorporate the proposal into the draft negotiating text. Some also commended India´s efforts in analysing data and improving transparency. However, some other members, developed and developing, were of the view that the proposal brought no new ideas to the negotiations and questioned the accuracy of some of the data cited in the document. They asked India to not lose sight of the high levels of support provided by all major subsidizers and the resulting harmful effects on global trade. In their view, India’s proposals were unlikely to gain traction as they only required a sub-set of subsidising members to make reductions.
The Cotton-4 Group of West African cotton-producing countries (Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mali) introduced a draft decision that seeks, in particular, cuts in members’ trade-distorting support for cotton and the elimination of “green box” direct payments to cotton producers. While several developing country members supported the proposal, some other members questioned it, noting that it was very close to a previous submission circulated in 2019 that failed to garner support.
Some other members made the case that support under the “green box” and “blue box” categories ought to be considered separately in view of their characteristics, including the fact that they caused at most minimal or less trade-distorting effects.
Several members declared themselves ready to engage with the C-4 on what could constitute a possible outcome on cotton at MC12. For one member, in view of the short time left and building upon the work undertaken in the last months, an outcome on cotton at MC12 should focus on progress on transparency, paving the way for a more ambitious outcome at MC13.
In a discussion on other topics, several members reiterated the importance of market access, with some of them indicating on-going work on new textual proposals on the continuation of work post MC12.
Dedicated session on public stockholding for food security purposes
Members’ interventions on public stockholding and the following discussion on the special safeguard mechanism again sought to respond to guiding questions from the Chair on how changes to the draft negotiating text could help build consensus.
Some members asked the Chair to incorporate into the draft negotiating text two recent proposals made by the African Group and the G33 Group (a group of developing and least-developed countries). They said the current two options presented in the draft negotiating text did not reflect the views of those developing members who want a permanent solution to the problems they face when buying food under these programmes at government-set prices. In their view, any such solution should not impose unduly burdensome transparency obligations on developing members and should cover all agriculture products. Some members suggested that the two groups should consult with each other to consolidate their proposals, given their shared objectives.
Meanwhile, other WTO members queried whether the negotiations would realistically be able to deliver a permanent solution on this question by the upcoming Ministerial Conference. In their view, many questions still remain unanswered, and better and more current data was needed so that all members could understand better how current public stockholding programmes functioned. They emphasised the connections they saw between this issue and the overall domestic support negotiations. Some members underscored the view that any permanent solution ought not to deprive WTO members of their rights to resolve any disagreements that may emerge through the WTO’s dispute settlement process. Some expressed the view that WTO members might be able to agree on parameters and principles that would guide talks in this area following the upcoming Ministerial Conference.
Noting the importance of the issue to many members, the Chair encouraged them to intensify their work so as to achieve an outcome by the date of the Ministerial Conference. She remained confident that an outcome is still possible despite the divisions. Only more flexibilities and good will will help members get there, she said.
Dedicated session on special safeguard mechanism (SSM)
The proponents restated their view that a special safeguard mechanism should be established so that developing members could counter the negative impact of import surges and price drops. Some of them highlighted the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on agricultural markets in their interventions.
Some members asked the Chair to incorporate the African Group´s recent submission into the draft negotiating text. Some developing members also suggested that members could consider adopting an interim solution on this topic at the upcoming Ministerial Conference. They argued that this would allow developing members to apply the proposed new safeguard for a number of years to test its effectiveness before members moved to negotiate a permanent mechanism. This would help generate evidence of how such a safeguard would work in practice, thereby responding to other countries’ concerns on this topic, the proponents said.
However, other countries said they did not see the special safeguard mechanism as a priority issue for the Ministerial Conference. They emphasised that, in their view, the special safeguard mechanism must be addressed in parallel with new market access commitments.
The Chair welcomed the ideas introduced in the exchanges and noted the linkage which a number of members had established between progress on the special safeguard mechanism and the issue of agricultural market access. She also emphasised the need for more technical discussion to take place on this question.
The Chair encouraged members to intensify their engagement with one another on possible textual compromises that would help them to reach consensus. She told the meeting that, in parallel, she will continue consultations with members in various formats, in particular holding topic-by-topic consultations with representative groups of members in an informal setting (the so-called “Room D” format), starting from 4 October.
The Chair told participants that the Committee on Agriculture in Special Session will hold its next meeting open to all members on 14 October. Noting that only six weeks would then remain before the Ministerial Conference, she emphasised that members will need to have a much clearer idea by then of potential “landing zones” if they want to be able to prepare a revised text for ministers to consider.
Background information on the negotiating function of the Committee on Agriculture is available here.
A glossary of agricultural trade terms and abbreviations is available here.