The 20-year saga of the WTO agriculture negotiations

The talks stumble along but what has been achieved is more significant than is generally realised, thanks partly to some remarkable New Zealanders

Obscured by the mists of time: One key objective has been achieved

By Peter Ungphakorn

On this day 20 years ago — March 23, 2000 — negotiators met at the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Geneva to kick off new agriculture negotiations. Two decades later, the talks struggle weakly on, amid pessimism that any significant breakthrough will be possible in the foreseeable future.

And yet at a modest level, more has been achieved than many people realise. Some will be surprised that the talks are continuing at all.

The talks were once part of a package of negotiations known unofficially as the Doha Round, which stalled in 2008 and is now considered by many — but not everyone — to be dead. There is no agreement about the round’s fate particularly among the WTO’s 164 member governments.

The disagreement has a practical impact. It reflects countries’ different views about where WTO negotiations should be heading.

Continue reading or jump down the page to

The beginning: optimism and total transparency | Tim Groser | Crawford Falconer | Blame | In decline, but with one important achievement | Piecemeal future

See also: WTO agriculture talks 2021: where ambition and cynicism collide | 25 Years of the Agriculture Agreement (WTO Secretariat background paper) | More on the agriculture negotiations

No matter how we might assess the life or death of the round, some agreements have recently been reached on issues that were (or are, if you prefer) part of the Doha Round.

They include trade facilitation (streamlining border procedures) and on what was seen by some 20 years ago as the most damaging policy in agriculture — export subsidies.

In the agriculture negotiations, some of the priorities at the beginning have now been obscured by the mists of time. Institutional memory is fading, both within countries’ delegations and the WTO Secretariat, which provides technical and administrative support for the negotiations.

If any of those delegates attending that first meeting are back in the present sessions, they would have been very junior at the time, there to support ambassadors or senior agricultural officials.

By now the senior delegates will have moved onward and upward. Some have retired.

Many of those who were junior at the time would by now have risen to positions that are no longer about the WTO, whose priority has diminished for many governments. A few others might have returned to Geneva as ambassadors, who do still attend the talks from time to time.

For this, and many other reasons, the nature of the agriculture negotiations has changed.

Pillars Logga Wiggler Pixabay CC0 cropped
One down two to go: the export subsidy pillar is now settled | Logga Wiggler via Pixabay CC0

The beginning: optimism and total transparencyBack to top

Back at the turn of the century, the WTO was in its prime. But not for much longer, and its confidence had already been dented a few weeks earlier after the Ministerial Conference in Seattle collapsed on December 3, 1999, amid mass protests.

Nevertheless, it reached its fifth anniversary still enjoying the success of the previous package of negotiations.

The 1986–94 Uruguay Round had modernised and expanded the multilateral trading system, replacing the ad hoc international institution called the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) with the fully-ratified WTO.

The system was now more than just about trade in goods. Services and intellectual property were brought into its “rules” — its agreements. Even for goods trade there were a number of revisions, including a totally new Agreement on Agriculture.

Despite its achievements, the Uruguay Round was unfinished business. Reaching agreement required compromise, and many countries grudgingly joined the consensus needed to conclude the talks, but felt more was needed in a number of areas.

The Agriculture Agreement had produced much needed reform. But subsidies and many tariffs were still high, and some countries felt the changes were inadequate. They were only willing to strike a deal on condition the new WTO’s membership agreed to return to negotiations in 2000.

This commitment to continue “the reform” was made in Article 20 of the agreement. It was part of the “built in agenda” (scroll down to the bottom of this page), which is now largely forgotten except for the promise to continue talks in agriculture and also in services (Article 19 of the General Agreement on Trade in Services).

And so, on March 23, 2000, the first meeting of the WTO agriculture negotiations began, with a totally new approach to transparency when compared with the Uruguay Round talks that had created the new institution and its set of rules.

For the first year or two, all documents in the negotiations were available publicly as soon as they were circulated, including countries’ proposals and the Secretariat’s background papers — which have been updated and remain a valuable source of information, although trade politics has sometimes intervened to prevent further work. Minutes were released after a short period to allow them to be verified.

As one senior Secretariat official said at the time: there was a need to keep the public on board, not with everything at every moment, but at key stages.

Over the years that transparency has declined for various reasons, including sensitivity as the talks reached a delicate point. But much of the content, including draft agreements, continued to be made available publicly and promptly, sometimes with press conferences. The WTO has continued to publish news stories on the talks.

The negotiations’ broad agenda covered three “pillars” — export subsidies and related issues; domestic support; and market access — along with some broader topics.

The talks are officially the Agriculture Committee meeting in “Special Session”, to use the confusing WTO bureaucratese.

In practice they are completely separate from the regular Agriculture Committee, with different chairs, different purposes, different procedures, and reporting to different bodies. But both comprise the full WTO membership.

As time passed, the talks gradually slipped from on-the-record formal meetings to off-the-record informal sessions, originally intended to encourage countries to speak more frankly.

Even in informal meetings, delegations still struggle to engage in a frank dialogue when over 100 others are present. They might as well be formal and on-the-record. Meanwhile, formal meetings have all but disappeared. They are only used now for official decisions, which nowadays means only to appoint a new chair. There are no more minutes recording the actual negotiations.

Tim Groser: explored possible agreement | WTO
Tim Groser: explored possible agreement | WTO

Tim GroserBack to top

A year and a half after the agriculture talks began, the Doha Round was launched. Multilateralism was resurging after the 9/11 attacks in the US, although preparations were underway well before that.

Agriculture and services had started as standalone negotiations. Now they were brought into the Doha Round. When the round faltered, they reverted to their original mandates. On its own, agriculture has seen some results. The services talks have so far produced nothing.

The first four years or so of the agriculture negotiations were spent with countries largely arguing their starting positions, with little effort among delegations to narrow down the wide differences.

One hurried attempt was made in 2003 to produce a draft text in order to meet the unrealistic deadline of concluding the talks in 2005. The draft by the chair, Stuart Harbinson of Hong Kong, was rejected, as members were again deadlocked in a ministerial conference, this time in Cancún, Mexico, in September 2003.


• 23 March 2000 — Roger Farrell, NZ, Ambassador (interim, Goods Council chair ex-officio, while members consult on choice)
• 29 June 2000 — Jorge Voto-Bernales, Peru, Ambassador
• 28 September 2001 — Apiradi Tantraporn, Thailand, Ambassador
• 26 March 2002 — Stuart Harbinson, HK, Permanent Representative, to September 2002, then director-general’s chef de cabinet
• 22 March 2004 — Tim Groser, NZ, Ambassador
• 1 August 2005 — Crawford Falconer, NZ Ambassador
• 22 April 2009 — David Walker, NZ, Ambassador
• 18 November 2011 — John Adank, NZ, Ambassador
• 8 September 2015 — Vangelis Vitalis, NZ, Ambassador
• 26 April 2017 — Stephen Ndung’u Karau, Kenya, Ambassador
• 9 April 2018 — John Ronald Dipchandra “Deep” Ford, Guyana, Ambassador
• 21 July 2020 — Gloria Abraham Peralta, Costa Rica, Ambassador

The collapse of the Cancún meeting confirmed that the 2005 deadline could not be met. The agriculture talks took on a markedly different turn.

On March 22, 2004, almost exactly four years after the talks began, Tim Groser was picked as the new chair, the first of a remarkable series of New Zealand ambassadors to serve as chief mediator in the talks. The chair now had the time to work on gradually building up consensus among the members, creating a bare bones “framework” that could be developed into acceptable drafts. Groser had the qualities to do it.

New Zealand is not neutral in the negotiations. Far from it. It’s in the Cairns Group, a coalition of successful developed and developing country agricultural exporters. Since 1986, the group has lobbied hard for agricultural trade to be liberalised radically. Opposite them for different reasons are the likes of the EU, Switzerland, Japan, India, China and to some extent the US.

For 13 of the talks’ 20 years, WTO members were happy for New Zealand diplomats to chair, not because of their country’s stance, but because they were considered individually to be suitably skilled and professional for the task of mediating between countries with conflicting interests.

Groser’s straight-talking style was effective, because it was diplomatic and combined with an ability to show delegations that he was a good listener who understood their concerns and their objectives. It allowed him to start work on narrowing the gaps and to explore where agreement might be possible.

Realising that even “informal” (off-the-record) meetings of the full membership were still used to make prepared statements rather than for genuine dialogue, Groser began holding meetings of much smaller groups of members to allow a franker conversation, with more give and take.

At the same time, he accepted members’ demands that the talks be “transparent and inclusive”. This meant that he would report back to larger groups and to the full membership on whatever was discussed in smaller sessions.

The countries invited would represent the many coalitions that had formed in the talks alongside major individual countries. The representatives would report back to their coalition partners too, although some delegates said privately this was sometimes flawed.

Coalitions in the WTO agriculture negotiations

The result was a “framework” produced in August 2004, and two more detailed papers circulated in June and July 2005, sadly still restricted although they are 15 years old.

By now, a group of African countries led by Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mali had added cotton to the talks’ agenda. They demanded steep cuts in cotton subsidies, a problem for the US, EU and China, and aid if the subsidies remained. And they trusted Groser because he heard their concerns and stated repeatedly that there could be no agreement in agriculture without a deal on cotton.

So the group were particularly dismayed when they learnt suddenly that Groser was returning to Wellington to enter politics. (He became trade minister and later New Zealand’s ambassador to the US.)

Crawford Falconer: oversaw the most productive period | WTO
Crawford Falconer: oversaw the most productive period | WTO

Crawford FalconerBack to top

Groser’s replacement in August 2005 as New Zealand ambassador and the talks’ chair was Crawford Falconer. In his own way Falconer was also a straight talker. He too was able to secure the confidence of the delegations (including the Cotton-4) by showing he also understood their sensitivities.

He could then speak frankly to them without losing their trust. He needed to do this in order to cut through unrealistic demands and hone in on where agreement might be possible.

On one occasion Falconer interrupted a fellow-ambassador by saying he accepted the need to dutifully read out a statement prepared by officials back in the capital, but since it had been heard before it wouldn’t make any difference to the talks. The ambassador carried on regardless.

On another he told a speaker that everyone knew that the proposal they had just heard for the umpteenth time still stood no chance of being accepted, no matter how often it was repeated.

The delegates seemed to accept the bluntness. Being able to tell the truth directly, without offending, is a rare and precious skill in the chair of a negotiation.

Falconer presided over the most productive period of the agriculture negotiations, particularly in 2007 and early 2008. In the last four months of 2007, he chaired over 100 hours of meetings of about 20–30 delegations, another 11 hours in meetings with the full membership, and spent an unknown time in private consultations.

What he heard allowed him to gradually build up a draft agreement, known as “modalities” because they describe how cuts in subsidies and trade barriers might be achieved for different groups of members. He produced revised drafts in February, May, July and December 2008.

The main December 2008 draft (with its accompanying papers) was the fourth and final revision, often called “Rev.4” for short. It remains on the table to this day. Some members say it should no longer be used in the talks, while others insist it should. In practice, the two agreements in agriculture that have been reached since 2008 have been based on this text.

By late 2008, the talks’ prospects were waning. In July, a group of ministers had tried and failed to break the deadlock in Geneva. The headlines had focused on rows between the US and India and to a lesser extent China.

US Trade Representative Susan Schwab had insisted a deal would only be possible if emerging economies genuinely opened their markets more to agricultural imports (and not just to tinker with legal ceilings without affecting applied tariffs). India’s Commerce Minister Kamal Nath had demanded in return that the US agree to cut actual farm support by “just one dollar”. Neither side budged.

Among the intractable issues was something called the “special safeguard mechanism” for developing countries to increase protection temporarily for their farmers. This was sometimes reported as a rift between rich and poor countries, but as with most WTO issues the alignments are more complicated than that. A number of developing countries also oppose the safeguard because they say it would hamper their ability to export to fellow-developing nations.

Even if the handful of remaining agricultural issues had been resolved, it’s unclear if the rest of the Doha Round would then have fallen into place. The upshot is that the round sank into hiatus.

The prestige of the WTO itself also declined, not just because of the problem with negotiations, but also because the 2008 financial crisis hit countries around the world, diverting their attention to more pressing issues, and resulting in a squeeze on the WTO’s already modest budget and its resources.

The eyes of the world turned away from multilateral trade negotiations. Where there was a focus on trade, it switched to bilateral and regional efforts.

More recently, the US has become increasingly bothered by the way appeals have been handled in WTO dispute settlement, triggering an additional crisis.

The WTO’s glory days are over.

Too complex? Would request-offer work better? | CC0
Too complex? Would request-offer work better? | CC0

BlameBack to top

Some now blame the complexity of Falconer’s 123-page 2008 draft for the failure in the agriculture negotiations.

The problem is that no one wanted to apply to everyone a common set of formulas for cutting tariffs or subsidies. That would have needed a text of little more than a couple of pages.

Instead, all countries claimed special sensitivities for some products (sugar, dairy, rice, and so on), or that they were in particular situations that needed to be taken in to account (small island developing states, landlocked developing countries, least-developed nations, new WTO members still adjusting to their accession terms, etc). As more deviations from the formulas were added for the special cases, the drafts became longer and more complex.

The alternative advocated by some is a return to the negotiating method used in the first decades after the Second World War. Pairs of countries would get together to make demands and offer concessions in return. They would meet other countries for more request-offer talks. What they had agreed would then be multilateralised for the WTO as a whole.

Request-offer has three major problems. One is the sheer number of members, now 164 (138, counting the EU customs union as one, but without the UK), four times the number involved in post-War GATT negotiations. Multilateralising so many bilateral deals would be extremely complicated. This is why later negotiations have favoured using formulas.

Another is the imbalance when powerful and weaker countries negotiate bilaterally. Formulas also dilute the imbalance and make treatment for developing countries more specific.

A third is the need to negotiate rules as well as individual countries’ commitments on market access and subsidies.

The more plausible reason for the deadlock is countries’ unwillingness to make concessions on the many, varied and sometimes complex demands they had called to be included in the draft.

Glory days over: but the WTO has still produced some agreements
Glory days over: but the WTO has still produced some agreements | WTO

In decline, but with one important achievementBack to top

The WTO talks were now nearing collapse. Falconer’s term in Geneva ended. He was called back to New Zealand where he became a vice-minister. Later he moved to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in Paris. He is now Chief Trade Negotiation Adviser at the UK’s International Trade Department.

Falconer’s successor David Walker (again, both as chair and New Zealand ambassador) was left in charge of some soul-destroying meetings on “templates”, essentially designing blank forms and spreadsheets for members to use when they are ready to calculate various reductions. The negotiators were treading water while they stayed split on what the actual cuts would be.

In 2013 (and — after a further hitch — in 2014) members agreed on a proposal from India, Indonesia and some other developing countries on public stockholding for food security, one of the issues taken from the 2008 “Rev.4” draft deal.

The problem was that purchases at government-set prices could lead to a violation of farm support limits (whereas purchases at market prices would be no problem).

The solution was to agree not to challenge these programmes when used by developing countries so long as certain conditions were met, including avoiding distorting international markets, and providing adequate information for other countries to assess the impact.

Walker had already been replaced by a fourth New Zealand ambassador, John Adank. A fifth, Vangelis Vitalis took over in September 2015. (Walker is back in Geneva now, chairing the WTO General Council. Adank is now director of the WTO Secretariat’s Legal Division.)

Then in December 2015, WTO members agreed finally to ban all export subsidies on agricultural products, more or less settling one of the three original pillars of the negotiations.

By now this had become a minor issue because most countries had already moved away from export subsidies, in some cases because they were expecting the WTO decision would be made anyway.

But back in 2000, when the talks were launched, export subsidies were top of the agenda for the Cairns Group of major agricultural exporters who described them as “the most trade-distorting agricultural policies [which] damage both developed and developing countries”. The group includes Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Thailand and Uruguay.

Discussions on disciplining policies related to export subsidies continue: state trading enterprises, food aid and export finance, which can all have similar effects .

Vitalis returned to Wellington in 2017 to be chief negotiator in Trans-Pacific Partnership talks and a deputy secretary in the trade ministry. Some developing countries said it was time to end New Zealand’s monopoly. The next chair was Kenyan ambassador Stephen Karau, by 2020 replaced by John “Deep” Ford of Guyana (see the box above for the full list of chairs).

One of the questions being asked is whether the selection of future chairs will be based on politics rather than individual ability.

Meanwhile, talks continue on the two pillars that are left standing: domestic support and market access. Both remain difficult and there is little sign that anything can be agreed on them.

One by one: for now, it’s separate single issue talks | Dmitry Demidov CC0
One by one: for now, it’s separate single issue talks | Dmitry Demidov CC0

Piecemeal futureBack to top

No doubt WTO member governments will continue to try to reach further agreement on reforming agricultural trade, but when, and on what, remains uncertain. It is also unlikely that agriculture will be part of a proper “round” of negotiations in the foreseeable future.

Ironically, this is exactly what many were saying at the end of the Uruguay Round in the mid-1990s — it was “the round to end all rounds”. From then on, WTO negotiations would be single-issue talks (such as on agriculture). Several subjects might be negotiated simultaneously but with no synchronised agenda so they could start and finish at different times.

This is what is happening now in the WTO. But, at some stage, members might feel it is more effective to negotiate a broader agenda because that allows trade-offs: “Give me this in agriculture and I’ll give you something on electronic commerce.”

That’s partly why the Doha Round was launched in 2001, but it didn’t work. Now, countries and their producers and traders are preoccupied with other problems. Concentrating efforts on a package of multilateral talks is a long, long way away.

October 26, 2020 — adding link to WTO Secretariat paper under “See also” in the “Jump to” box
July 21, 2020 — adding Gloria Abraham Peralta, Costa Rica, Ambassador, to the list of chairs
March 24, 2020 — adding references to the Seattle and Cancún meetings, the 2003 draft and the 2004 “framework”

Author: Peter Ungphakorn

I used to work at the WTO Secretariat (1996–2015), and am now an occasional freelance journalist, focusing mainly on international trade rules, agreements and institutions. (Previously, analysis for AgraEurope.) Trade β Blog is for trialling ideas on trade and any other subject, hence “β”. You can respond by using the contact form on the blog or tweeting @CoppetainPU

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