WTO agriculture negotiations at “critical juncture”, Chair tells delegation heads

With less than five weeks until the WTO’s 12th Ministerial Conference (MC12), due to take place from 30 November to 3 December, the agriculture negotiations are at “a critical juncture”, the Chair of the Committee on Agriculture in Special Session, Ambassador Gloria Abraham Peralta (Costa Rica), noted at a meeting on October 28. She stressed that WTO members “now urgently need clear political guidance” on questions where gaps remain.

The Chair also reported back to negotiators on her consultations with various groups of members since the last meeting two weeks earlier. She told them that in the first half of November she hoped to be able to issue a new negotiating document for ministers to consider at the upcoming conference.

Encouraging signs — but gaps remain

The Chair told members that she was “very encouraged” by the spirit of compromise that negotiators had shown in the talks so far — and that the progress made towards outcomes for the Ministerial Conference was “extremely valuable”.

However, she warned that gaps still remain on several issues. “We should not be complacent,” she told trade officials at the meeting.

She also told negotiators that it was up to them to find ways to bridge their outstanding differences. She urged them to work together intensively in the time remaining in order to do so.

She underscored that an MC12 agriculture outcome must support the COVID-19 recovery and address shared goals on food and agriculture. “We must ensure that an MC12 outcome contributes towards progress in ending hunger, achieving food security and improved nutrition, and promoting sustainable agriculture,” she said.

Several unresolved questions

The Chair provided an update on the progress made under the seven outstanding topics in the negotiations — domestic support, market access, export restriction, export competition, cotton, public stockholding for food security purposes and the special safeguard mechanism, as well as the cross-cutting issue of transparency.

She also identified several unresolved issues where important gaps still remain between negotiators’ positions after the latest round of consultations.

Members still need to identify an option that could “realistically” provide a basis for convergence on the question of public stockholding for food security purposes, she said. In 2013, WTO members agreed that, by the 11th Ministerial Conference in 2017, a “permanent solution” would be found to the problems that some developing countries say they face under WTO farm subsidy rules when buying food at minimum prices.

The Chair said that trade officials need to determine the possible contours of an agreement to intensify negotiations on agricultural domestic support. This includes whether they can agree on a numerical target for subsidy cuts, a timeframe for doing so, a possible “standstill” provision, and special and differential treatment for developing countries. She also noted that members are seeking to agree on the level of details and specificity needed to anchor the post-conference work programme on agricultural market access.

Gaps also remain on some possible “immediate deliverables” on transparency improvements, the Chair said, adding that these would address the predictability of WTO members’ arrangements for changing applied tariffs and the treatment of shipments of goods en route and improve the advance notification they provide if imposing restrictions on exports of food.

The Chair also noted that members’ positions still diverge on whether the proposed “special safeguard mechanism” could be set up on a time-limited interim basis to allow developing countries to address sudden import surges or price falls. This topic was discussed in more depth immediately after the negotiating meeting in a dedicated session convened by the Chair, alongside a dedicated session on public stockholding.

Some differences persist regarding the envisaged decision to exempt from export restrictions food purchases made by the World Food Programme for humanitarian purposes, she said.

Finally, the Chair said that differences among members remain on whether specific deadlines could be agreed for the post-MC12 work on some topics.

The Chair also noted in her report the need to narrow gaps on other topics, including on the important question of trade-distorting domestic support for cotton.

Any new text must “hit the target”

The Chair reiterated that members would have to choose between closing the remaining gaps in their negotiating positions or adjusting the level of ambition. She asked members to keep her informed about any progress made in narrowing these gaps as they engaged with one another in the coming hours and days.

She warned negotiators that she would not have time to produce multiple iterations of the draft negotiating text ahead of the Ministerial Conference. For this reason, any revised draft text “would have to hit the target — or be very close to doing so”.

Members’ discussions

In the meeting, ambassadors taking the floor acknowledged the progress made in the small group discussions that the Chair had convened, while also agreeing with the Chair that gaps remain.

Many speakers shared their views on what they see as realistic and desirable outcomes for MC12, including what they view as viable immediate decisions and what they see could form part of a subsequent work programme.

Delegates also commented on where they see the level of progress on one agriculture negotiating topic as linked to the degree of ambition on another topic.

Some speakers taking the floor placed the negotiations within the context of the broader reform programme on agricultural trade since the conclusion of the Uruguay Round in 1994. Others also emphasised current challenges facing WTO members, including the COVID-19 pandemic and the need to improve food security for vulnerable producers and consumers.

Several negotiators from the Cairns Group of developing and developed country agricultural exporters emphasised the importance of agreement on an ambitious work programme on domestic support, including a clear direction and some key principles. Cambodia announced it would co-sponsor the initiative of a number of agricultural exporting countries to pursue a framework for cuts in agricultural domestic support, joining Lao PDR, another least developed country, which had earlier signalled its support.

The importance of agreeing on a significant work programme on market access was also stressed by several members.

At the same time, a number of developed country participants cautioned against pursuing what they see as overly ambitious outcomes. Instead, they emphasised the value of agreeing on steps to improve transparency, including on export restrictions and changing applied duties, especially on shipments of goods that are already en route to their destination. These WTO members also insisted on the need to develop work programmes on various topics, but without prejudging the outcomes of the future negotiations they would entail. Many also expressed their support for the adoption of a decision exempting food purchased by the World Food Programme from export restrictions.

Others, from the G-33 group of developing countries and from the African Group, underscored the importance of progress on the question of public stockholding for food security purposes, and on the proposed “special safeguard mechanism”.

Burkina Faso, speaking for the C4 group of West African cotton-producing countries (Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mali), highlighted the importance of progress on cotton for MC12, and made reference to its proposal for cutting trade-distorting domestic support for cotton. Heads of delegations from cotton-producing countries in different world regions met in the “cotton Quad plus” format on 13 October and WTO members will also have an opportunity to continue their discussions on this topic during the next dedicated discussion on the trade-related aspects of cotton on  November 4, 2021.

Next meeting

Moving forward, the Chair announced her plans to present members with “a document that could serve as a basis for Ministers’ consideration at MC12”.

She concluded the meeting by urging trade officials to work with one another to try to narrow the gaps between their negotiating positions in the little time that now remains before the Conference.

The next committee meeting is scheduled to take place on November 15-16.


Background information on the agriculture negotiations is available here.

The agriculture glossary is available here.