Progress in the agriculture negotiations depends on the willingness of WTO members to achieve it, the chair of the negotiations said at a meeting on 7-8 September. The informal meeting of the Committee on Agriculture in Special Session was the first opportunity for members to discuss a new draft negotiation text introduced by the chair on 29 July, with a view to facilitating consensus among members ahead of the WTO’s 12th Ministerial Conference (MC12) on 30 November — 3 December.
“Members themselves must want to achieve progress. Members themselves must want to negotiate. And members themselves need to be in the driving seat on the road to MC12,” said the chair, Ambassador Gloria Abraham Peralta of Costa Rica.
In her opening remarks, the chair reminded members that, by improving the functioning of food and agricultural markets, an outcome at the upcoming ministerial conference could make a meaningful contribution to recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic – and also help address other challenges members face, such as food insecurity and poverty. “We all have a role to play,” she said.
With limited time left before the conference, her draft text seeks to help negotiators shift gears and start to engage in focused, text-based negotiations. It outlines the possible contours of ministerial decisions on seven agriculture negotiating topics: domestic support, market access, export restrictions, export competition (covering measures seen as equivalent to export subsidies), cotton, public stockholding for food security purposes, and a proposed special safeguard mechanism for developing countries. It also covers one cross-cutting issue, transparency.
The chair emphasized that the draft text is only a tool to help negotiators make progress in the talks. It was prepared taking into account all submissions circulated to date, as well as comments and reflections in the various negotiation sessions. With only two and a half months left before MC12, the chair said that negotiators needed to start working intensively now if they want to be able to present ministers with a fully stabilized text ahead of the conference.
“I am sure that, for each of you, there will be elements of my draft text that you do not like. This is to be expected for what is essentially a compromise text. What is necessary now is for you to engage with one another, consider what kind of text could be acceptable to you all, and evaluate which ideas might most reasonably garner consensus,” she added.
Members thanked the chair for her efforts to put together the draft text and provided initial comments, expressing divergent views on most issues. Some members considered that the proposal for a target for reducing agricultural domestic support went too far given the substantial differences among members on how to move forward on this issue. Others, however, thought that it did not go far enough, or contained too many flexibilities. Some members reiterated their view that a comprehensive work programme was needed to expand market access for farm goods, while others emphasized the need for prior progress in domestic support.
The harmonization element in the draft text proposing “deeper cuts in higher tariffs” was considered premature and overly ambitious by some delegations. Some regretted that the draft did not include enough detailed measures to improve transparency, while others considered that the text gave too much priority to this issue over others and did not take into account concerns expressed by many developing countries in relation to possible additional burdensome requirements.
Many members welcomed the draft text on the exemption of export restrictions for food purchases for humanitarian purposes by the World Food Programme (WFP). The exchanges on the other elements on export restrictions as well as on export competition reflected the views expressed on transparency overall.
The informal negotiating meeting was followed by a dedicated session on Public Stockholding for Food Security Purposes (PSH), and a dedicated session on the Special Safeguard Mechanism (SSM). Again, members’ views on these questions continued to diverge, with proponents calling for an outcome at MC12 in these areas while some others made linkages to progress on other parts of the agriculture negotiating agenda.
In closing the meeting, Ambassador Abraham Peralta told members she was fully conscious of the divergences between members. She added that negotiators now need to engage seriously and collectively on a textual basis and contribute to improving the draft text by tabling constructive inputs and suggestions.
“Together, we can take steps that demonstrate how better rules on farm trade can address the challenges in today’s world. The time for long speeches is over. We now need to roll up our sleeves and get down to work,” she told the meeting.
The chair announced her intention to convene another negotiating meeting on 20 September to allow members to continue exchanges on substance, report on their contacts and initiatives, introduce new submissions, and propose textual suggestions to the draft text. She told members she planned to hold consultations in various formats beforehand, and said she intended to report on these at the meeting, when she would also elaborate in greater detail her thoughts on the process leading up to the ministerial conference.