July 26, 2023
The food systems in an address centred on food security at a UN summit held in Rome from 24 to 26 July. “We cannot solve the food systems problems we face without trade. We cannot achieve the food systems transformation we need without reforming trade policy,” she said.
The event — entitled “UN Food Systems Summit +2 Stocktaking Moment” — was hosted by the Government of Italy, in collaboration with UN agencies, in particular the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the International Fund for Agricultural Development, the World Food Programme and the UN Food Systems Coordination Hub.
Addressing a session on trade for agri-food systems transformation via a virtual connection, DG Okonjo-Iweala emphasized that open and predictable trade is an indispensable mechanism for people to access affordable food because “one in five calories consumed around the world is traded across an international border”. Furthermore, “farm trade rules and policies shape the incentives influencing production, investment and consumption decisions at the centre of the food systems transformation,” she added.
The Director-General said trade is “a key factor” in driving development and income gains for people in poor countries and in supporting better access to nutritious food, as evidenced in the decades of trade-enabled growth up until the COVID-19 pandemic.
Highlighting the worsening hunger and malnutrition situation due to the pandemic, the war in Ukraine and other factors, DG Okonjo-Iweala drew attention to the latest data revealed by the new State of Food Security and Nutrition report: 793 million people faced hunger in 2022, and 2.4 billion people did not have year-round access to nutritious, safe and sufficient food.
The DG outlined the substantial work done by the WTO in the past two years in response to the food security crisis and to support improvements to the functioning of food and agriculture markets. She highlighted in particular the package of outcomes at the 12th Ministerial Conference (MC12) in June 2022, which included a declaration on the emergency response to food insecurity and a decision on humanitarian food aid.
Hailing the positive impact of the MC12 outcome on the World Food Programme’s (WFP) humanitarian work, she said: “The WFP recently told the WTO Committee on Agriculture that exemption from export restrictions had helped them source food from more countries and enabled faster and more localized procurement.”
She also drew attention to the landmark deal on curbing harmful fisheries subsidies, which will bolster food security, and urged governments to expedite the acceptance of the agreement for early implementation.
DG Okonjo-Iweala further elaborated on how trade and the WTO have helped people and countries cope with recent food security crises. Work has included the WTO’s efforts to curb export restrictions and to improve access to fertilizer, a sector severely affected by the war in Ukraine.
“We have been pushing members to live up to their pledges and remove the export restrictions on food, feed and fertilizers that many introduced after the start of the war in Ukraine. The number of restrictions has come down from 104 to 59 as of mid-July — so 45 were phased out,” she said.
The immediate next steps for the WTO will be enhancing existing transparency tools and easing trade obstacles for environmentally friendly innovative technologies used in the agriculture sector, the DG said.
Looking ahead, DG Okonjo-Iweala stressed two areas of focus for the WTO’s work on contributing to food systems transformation. The first is delivering results in the long-standing negotiations on agriculture trade. The second is ensuring the WTO plays its part in helping food systems become sustainable, with better water, land and input use.
She highlighted members’ shared view in seeing food security as the key to unlock progress in the agriculture negotiations. She urged trade ministers to seize the opportunity of the upcoming senior officials’ meeting in October to make political breakthroughs and lay the groundwork for delivering results on agriculture at the 13th Ministerial Conference on 26-29 February 2024.
Noting the linkages between WTO agriculture reform and sustainable agri-food systems transformation, the DG asked members to review the current farm subsidy rules, repurpose the trade-distortive and environmentally harmful subsidies, and incentivize the uptake of green technologies and practices, such as precision drip irrigation involving the controlled delivery of water to plants.
“A World Bank report last month estimated that explicit government expenditures on agriculture, fishing and fossil fuel subsidies total about USD 1.25 trillion each year. We can … repurpose some of these sources to meet the world’s most pressing challenges,” she said.
In conclusion, she put forward three requests to participants: “First, remember that trade is a tool in your tool box to solve food systems problems. Second, please urge your trade colleagues to deliver results in the ongoing WTO agriculture negotiations. And third, let’s make full use of the WTO as a tool to transform food systems and help meet the Sustainable Development Goals.”
Summit puts trade high on the agenda
The “UN food systems summit (UNFSS) +2 stockholding moment” is the first stockholding event convened by the UN Secretary-General since the UNFSS was held in 2021, marking a critical moment in reviewing progress on global efforts towards the transformation of food systems for the achievement of the SDGs. The summit is aimed at preparing the way for the SDGs Summit in September and the Climate Change Summit in November.
The WTO made important contributions to the UNFSS in 2021 by organizing a virtual dialogue, championing the discussion on the relationship between trade and food systems. Also at the UNFSS in 2021, the UN Secretary-General António Guterres identified trade as a “means of implementation” for the transformation of food systems, together with finance, innovation and data. This year, trade was high on the agenda of the UN summit, and the WTO was invited to participate in various activities during the event.
Deputy Director-General Jean-Marie Paugam attended a panel discussion on 25 July titled “Food systems for prosperity”, where he highlighted current priorities as WTO members gear up for MC13. He said: “There are three short-term priorities for food security on our road to MC13 — controlling export restrictions, completing fisheries negotiations, and taking a meaningful step towards structural reform of agricultural trade distortions.”
More information on WTO action on food security is available here: WTO | Food security
The World Trade Organization (WTO) deals with the global rules of trade between nations. Its main function is to ensure that trade flows as smoothly, predictably and freely as possible.