Tackling International Food Security
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 17 May , 2023

At meetings open to all World Trade Organisation (WTO) members on 3-4 May, the chair of the agriculture negotiations — Alparslan Acarsoy of Türkiye — urged participants to accelerate their efforts to find common ground ahead of the 13th Ministerial Conference (MC13), being held in Abu Dhabi in February 2024. “Making progress in the immediate future is crucial if we want to reach an outcome at MC13,” he said.

Alparslan told participants that MC13 was an opportunity to build on what was achieved at the last ministerial conference in June 2022, where trade ministers agreed a package of outcomes that included a declaration on the emergency response to food insecurity and a decision on humanitarian food aid.“But time is short before MC13, and each day counts,” he warned.

Alparslan said his consultations with members have confirmed that food security is top of the agenda for most members and is expected to be at the core of any MC13 outcome.“It’s important in my view to continue brainstorming collectively in this direction,” he said, while also noting that more work is required on topics such as domestic support. He called upon members to pitch tangible ideas that could bridge differences, building on the good momentum seen in a series of recent thematic seminars.“Such a process is a difficult one and requires both boldness and trust from each member to step out of its comfort zone. It also requires imagination, pragmatism and flexibility to build the basis for a balanced outcome acceptable by all,” he added.

Addressing market access and export restrictions before the meetings, members participated in two thematic seminars on 2 May covering market access and food export restrictions, following three earlier seminars convened by him at the end of March.Academic experts and staff from the WTO Secretariat and other international organizations presented analysis. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the UN World Food Programme were among those who contributed as invited speakers.

Moving forward on public food stockholdingAlparslan noted that, in previous meetings, WTO members had continued to express divergent views on the question of public stockholding for food security purposes.Since the Bali Ministerial Conference a decade ago, WTO members have been seeking a “permanent solution”to the problems some developing countries especially India face when purchasing food at government-set prices as part of their public stockholding programmes for food security purposes. Procurement at “administered” prices must be counted towards WTO members’ overall support limit, unlike stock purchases at market prices. However, a number of developing countries argue that food price inflation has affected their ability to buy food at minimum prices under these programmes.To move forward, the Alparslan asked members to identify their top-three important elements so that the negotiations could be more focused.

At the meeting, members exchanged views on elements such as the external reference price used to calculate levels of market price support, the products that might be covered by an eventual permanent solution and requirements related to sharing information transparently. They also discussed measures aimed at preventing circumvention of existing subsidy commitments and the importance of access to dispute settlement.

Alparslan convened a dedicated discussion on the “special safeguard mechanism” (SSM) — a proposed policy tool that would enable developing country members to increase tariffs temporarily in the event of a sudden import surge or falling food prices.He noted that no significant progress had been made due to different views among WTO members on whether the SSM should be linked to progress in improving access to agricultural markets. He asked members to advise whether there is a need to hold technical thematic sessions to share experiences on the existing special agricultural safeguards (SSGs), provided for under Article 5of the Agreement on Agriculture and on designing a safeguard mechanism that would allow members to take countervailing measures to address trade-distorting subsidies.

In the discussion, most members welcomed more information about SSGs. Several agricultural exporting countries suggested that more evidence and data could help WTO members better understand how the existing safeguard rules in the Agreement on Agriculture are being applied.

Alparslan asked members to focus their discussion on two questions: the contribution MC13 could make to enhance food security; and which elements of an agricultural package at MC13 might be acceptable to all.

Members welcomed the chair’s initiative to start detailed discussions. They generally shared the view that a food security package should be the centrepiece of an MC13 outcome, given the urgent need to combat hunger. However, there were divergent views on the package’s contents, scope and level of ambition, among other things.

Several members emphasised that the continuation of the reform process aimed at a reduction in domestic support and protection in line with Article 20 of the Agreement on Agriculture is the best vehicle to contribute to enhancing food security while other members stressed the centrality of the permanent solution on public stockholding for food security purposes. Different views were also expressed on how to address domestic support in the negotiations, which remains a key priority for many members.

Several members also referred to the work programme on food security for least developed countries (LDCs) and net food-importing developing countries (NFIDCs) under the regular Committee on Agriculture (CoA) as a possible source of inspiration for developing a comprehensive package on food security for MC13.

Alparslan briefed the meeting on the constructive engagement in the “quad-plus” negotiation meeting, which restarted in April. This negotiation forum dedicated to cotton involves the “Cotton-4” countries (Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mali), Côte d’Ivoire and several major cotton players, such as the United States, the European Union, China, Brazil, India and Pakistan. Talks among members had focused on how to make progress in reducing trade-distorting subsidies for cotton, he said.

The WTO’s agriculture negotiations encompass various topics, including domestic support, market access, export competition (covering  export subsidies and measures seen as comparable), export prohibitions and restrictions, cotton, public stockholding for food security purposes, the special safeguard mechanism, and the cross-cutting issue of transparency.

The next committee meetings are slated for 21-22 June and 17-18 July. The chair expressed the hope that the July meeting would allow members to take stock of the brainstorming process and obtain a clearer idea of the elements that could be incorporated into an outcome on food and agriculture at MC13.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Col (Dr) PK Vasudeva

is author of World Trade Organisation: Implications for Indian Economy, Pearson Education and also a former Professor International Trade.

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