COVID-19 and agriculture; other challenges to food security

Under the item on “COVID-19 and agriculture”, which has been on the committee agenda since September 2020, members discussed wider aspects of food security challenges, including the war in Ukraine, climate change, extreme weather, and the general economic slowdown, as well as their impact on agricultural trade. Members received updates from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO, G/AG/GEN/202), and the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA, G/AG/GEN/201).

A number of members said they were alarmed by the facts in FAO's analysis and shared concerns regarding the severe food and nutrition insecurity exacerbated by the prolonged COVID-19 pandemic and the tension in the Black Sea area. They acknowledged that net food-importing developing countries (NFIDCs) and least developed countries (LDCs) are among the hardest hit and are expected to pay billions of dollars more for lower volumes of food imports. They also noted the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has reduced its projected global economic growth rate to 3.6% for 2022 and 2023, which will compound the difficulties experienced by those countries.

Some members highlighted the critical role of trade in ensuring food security and the need to build up the long-term resilience of agriculture markets, including avoiding unjustified export restrictions and improving transparency. Some developing members also emphasized the importance of unlocking local production capacity in developing countries as a means of contributing to long-term food security.  They encouraged members to consider what tangible steps can be taken to achieve this goal.

MC12 declarations follow-up

Trade ministers at MC12 vowed to collectively address the global food security challenges in the Ministerial Declaration on the Emergency Response to Food Insecurity (WT/MIN(22)/28) as well in the Ministerial Declaration on the WTO Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic and Preparedness for Future Pandemics (WT/MIN(22)/31).

The first declaration also provides for the establishment of a dedicated work programme on NFIDCs and LDCs to address their specific concerns on food security under the auspices of the Committee on Agriculture.

Members held preliminary discussions on how to develop the work programme. While the specific issues to be considered under the programme would be based on members' suggestions and contributions, this first discussion in the committee also demonstrated that members would need additional time and further discussions on the format and the scope of the work programme.   

The second declaration affirms the need to review and build on all the lessons learned and the challenges experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic, as discussed within WTO bodies, in order to build effective solutions on food security in case of future pandemics.

The chair asked members to explore whether the title of the standing agenda item on “COVID-19 and agriculture” should be altered since the agricultural challenges posed by COVID-19 have recently been compounded by the latest food security challenges. A declining number of reported COVID-19 related agricultural measures by members might be an indication that they are now hesitant to attribute a measure solely to the pandemic.  Some members agreed to adjust the topic to cover current challenges to food security while others were concerned that this may go too far by discussing issues beyond the mandate of the committee. The chair decided to keep the current agenda item as it is until a decision is made by members.

At the meeting, the UN World Food Programme (WFP) thanked WTO members for approving a decision to exempt the WFP’s humanitarian food purchases from export restrictions at MC12. The WFP said its Executive Director, David Beasley, noted the historic decision was taken “when the global food security is facing unprecedented challenges” and that the decision “will ensure that critical relief reaches the most vulnerable populations when and where needed”.

Regular review of agricultural policies

Seven new issues were addressed as part of discussions on members' farm policies in relation to the three pillars of agricultural trade: market access, domestic support and export competition. In the spotlight were China's agricultural inputs subsidies, Egypt's import requirement, Italy's local content policies, India's domestic support for rice, India's export restrictions on wheat, Malaysia's chicken export prohibition and the United States' crop production support.

For 12 recurring issues, members continued to seek details on matters such as Canada's dairy policies, EU environmental and deforestation policies, India's public stockpiling policies, Indonesia's palm oil export restrictions and the US conservation reserve program.

Members also seized the opportunity to seek details on some individual notifications pertaining to tariff quota administration, special agricultural safeguards, domestic support, and export subsidy notifications. Most attention was focused on domestic support, with 11 members being questioned on their domestic support notifications to the WTO.

Several members said they have initiated an official request for consultations with India seeking more detailed information regarding its public stockholding programmes, pursuant to paragraph 6 of the Bali decision on public stockholding programme for food security purposes. India said the consultation dates have not been finalized. The chair asked the participants in the consultations to keep the committee informed of progress.

All questions submitted for the meeting are compiled in document  G/AG/W/221. All questions and replies received are available on the WTO's Agriculture Information Management System (AG IMS).

Nairobi Decision on export competition

Highlighting the context of the annual dedicated discussion on export competition, the chair noted that the committee has concluded the second triennial review of the Nairobi Export Competition Decision and adopted a review report (G/AG/33) . He also recalled that 2021 was the first year when all members were required to reply to the export competition questionnaire (ECQ) — a key element of the dedicated discussion exercise — as the grace period for developing countries to respond to the questionnaire had expired. The decision on export competition commits WTO members to eliminate farm subsidies contingent on export.  

The chair said 36 replies to the questionnaire were received by the time the meeting began, which constitutes the best rate for responses since the questionnaire was first circulated in 2014. All replies are compiled in document G/AG/W/125/Rev.16 and its four addenda circulated on 30 May. The 36 participating members represent about 70% of total world exports, a sharp decrease compared to last year due to missing questionnaires from some major exporters.  He urged members to abide by their transparency commitments and provide a reply by 15 July.

Several members answered questions at the meeting regarding their policies on export competition. These questions may be consulted in G/AG/W/221. All questions and replies received are available in the WTO's Agriculture Information Management System (AG IMS).

With regard to members' compliance with incorporating the elimination of export subsidies into their WTO schedules of commitments, the situation has not changed since the last meeting: among the 16 members with export subsidy reduction commitments, 13 have seen their revised schedules certified (i.e. accepted by all WTO members) while two members — Canada and the European Union — await certification of their draft schedules circulated in 2017. The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela has not yet circulated its revised export subsidy schedule.

Bali decision on tariff rate quota administration

Following the agreement reached at the Committee on Agriculture in March 2022, the General Council has subsequently adopted the decision on the future operation of the underfill mechanism established under the Bali tariff rate quota (TRQ) Decision and reached closure on this outstanding issue. After the conclusion of the long debate on this outstanding element related to the underfill mechanism, members at this June meeting commenced discussions on a Secretariat Tracking Register required under the decision to record and track underfill matters raised under the mechanism. They also started to discuss the first triennial review of the operation of the decision, focusing primarily on how transparency of tariff quota administration arrangements could be further improved.

Enhancing transparency

The chair reiterated two elements critical to enhanced transparency in the committee: (i) the timeliness and completeness of notifications submitted by members; and (ii) the importance of timely and complete responses to questions raised in the review process.

The chair encouraged members to redouble efforts to improve their compliance with notification obligations. G/AG/GEN/86/Rev.45 and G/AG/W/204/Rev.6 reflect, respectively, the current status of members' compliance with notification obligations and the list of outstanding responses to questions raised by members at the committee between 2013 and 2021. Members were also informed about progress in the Secretariat's ongoing IT project on the ECQ to facilitate members' online replies to the questionnaire. Some members also proposed that the Secretariat should develop a database on domestic support to facilitate their access to the notified support data. Other members sought additional time to examine the proposal for the suggested database. 

Other matters

The Secretariat announced its plan to organize the second phase of the 2021-22 advanced notification workshop in September in the margins of the next Agriculture Committee meeting. The workshop will focus on how to prepare agriculture notifications as well as the review process of the committee.  The first phase of the training workshop was conducted virtually in October 2021.

Next step

The next meeting of the Committee on Agriculture is scheduled for 27-28 June 2022.

More information on the work of the Committee on Agriculture is available here.




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