Issues covered by the WTO’s committees and agreements

Domestic support in agriculture

The boxes

The boxes’ colours are based on traffic lightsIn WTO terminology, subsidies in general are identified by “boxes” which are given the colours of traffic lights: green (permitted), amber (slow down — i.e. be reduced), red (forbidden). In agriculture, things are, as usual, more complicated. The Agriculture Agreement has no red box, although domestic support exceeding the reduction commitment levels in the amber box is prohibited; and there is a blue box for subsidies that are tied to programmes that limit production. There are also exemptions for developing countries (sometimes called an “S&D box”, including provisions in Article 6.2 of the agreement).

Backgrounder on the agriculture negotiations:

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This briefing document explains current agricultural issues raised before and in the current negotiations. It has been prepared by the Information and Media Relations Division of the WTO Secretariat to help public understanding about the agriculture negotiations. It is not an official record of the negotiations.

Amber box
  >  Back to topAmber light

Amber boxAll domestic support measures considered to distort production and trade (with some exceptions) fall into the amber box, which is defined in Article 6 of the Agriculture Agreement as all domestic supports except those in the blue and green boxes. These include measures to support prices, or subsidies directly related to production quantities.

These supports are subject to limits: “de minimis” minimal supports are allowed (5% of agricultural production for developed countries, 10% for developing countries); the 30 WTO members that had larger subsidies than the de minimis levels at the beginning of the post-Uruguay Round reform period are committed to reduce these subsidies.

The reduction commitments are expressed in terms of a “Total Aggregate Measurement of Support” (Total AMS) which includes all supports for specified products together with supports that are not for specific products, in one single figure. In the current negotiations, various proposals deal with how much further these subsidies should be reduced, and whether limits should be set for specific products rather than continuing with the single overall “aggregate” limits. In the Agriculture Agreement, AMS is defined in Article 1 and Annexes 3 and 4.

Blue box
  >  Back to topBlue light

Blue boxThis is the “amber box with conditions” — conditions designed to reduce distortion. Any support that would normally be in the amber box, is placed in the blue box if the support also requires farmers to limit production (details set out in Paragraph 5 of Article 6 of the Agriculture Agreement).

At present there are no limits on spending on blue box subsidies. In the current negotiations, some countries want to keep the blue box as it is because they see it as a crucial means of moving away from distorting amber box subsidies without causing too much hardship. Others wanted to set limits or reduction commitments, some advocating moving these supports into the amber box.


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Green box 

Green light

Green boxThe green box is defined in Annex 2 of the Agriculture Agreement.

In order to qualify, green box subsidies must not distort trade, or at most cause minimal distortion (paragraph 1). They have to be government-funded (not by charging consumers higher prices) and must not involve price support.

They tend to be programmes that are not targeted at particular products, and include direct income supports for farmers that are not related to (are “decoupled” from) current production levels or prices. They also include environmental protection and regional development programmes. “Green box” subsidies are therefore allowed without limits, provided they comply with the policy-specific criteria set out in Annex 2.

In the current negotiations, some countries argue that some of the subsidies listed in Annex 2 might not meet the criteria of the annex’s first paragraph — because of the large amounts paid, or because of the nature of these subsidies, the trade distortion they cause might be more than minimal. Among the subsidies under discussion here are: direct payments to producers (paragraph 5), including decoupled income support (paragraph 6), and government financial support for income insurance and income safety-net programmes (paragraph 7), and other paragraphs. Some other countries take the opposite view — that the current criteria are adequate, and might even need to be made more flexible to take better account of non-trade concerns such as environmental protection and animal welfare.

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