WTO agriculture retreat said strong on context but weak on give-and-take

Some who attended blamed the ‘vacuum’ caused by a delay in appointing a new chair, and ambassadors reading from prepared statements

Photo of woman and baby farming in Africa

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED OCTOBER 26, 2022 | UPDATED OCTOBER 26, 2022

Monday’s (October 24) “retreat” on agriculture at the World Trade Organization (WTO) was supposed to produce new ideas to help move the stalled farm trade talks forward, but some accounts suggest it was stronger on alerting delegates to new challenges than on developing new negotiating approaches.

This seems to contrast with the brainstorming approach seen in a similar event a fortnight earlier on the fisheries subsidies negotiations (October 10, 2022).

Part of the problem may be that a new chair still has not been appointed for the talks — a problem shared with fisheries subsidies, but apparently not affecting that earlier retreat.

According to one person who attended the agriculture event, the absence of a chair meant the discussion was “like talking in a vacuum”, even though all potential new chairs were present.

The organisers had hoped one would have been appointed by now, but the General Council chair, Swiss ambassador Didier Chambovey, is still consulting members on appointing replacements for both negotiations.

Another attendee said some participants read from prepared statements rather than engaging in genuine free thinking.

If there were new ideas on the negotiations they mostly seem to have been about procedure rather than substance: how the talks should be organised rather new approaches for cutting trade-distorting domestic support — despite a recent suggestion that delegations could consider simplifying the support categories — or for opening markets.

One exception, according people in the retreat, was the gauntlet that one of the expert speakers threw down: a list of questions about how well present concepts in the agriculture negotiations meet present needs.

Even that does not seem to have sparked real brain-storming on the negotiations’ substance.

Photo of Vangelis Vitalis speaking in the retreat
Gauntlet: Vitalis challenged delegates to question whether key concepts are still useful, but the response was muted | WTO/Franck Abdulrahman Ghannam
Muted response

Vangelis Vitalis, a senior trade official from New Zealand and former chair of the talks, is said to have questioned whether some the “boxes” used to categorise types of domestic support are fit for purpose. (The boxes are defined according to their distorting effect on prices and production levels, and other criteria, explained here.)


As we look out onto the world now, the rules are fragmenting and they are less enforceable than they were

— Vangelis Vitalis,
former chair, agriculture negotiations

One of the challenged concepts is the Green Box of supports that are allowed without limits. This is the category where support is considered to cause no (or minimal) distortion. Vitalis is said to have suggested this might not be fit for purpose. He proposed changes to deal with modern environmental challenges. The revisions could include clearer criteria for putting programmes targeting sustainability and climate change in the Green Box.

He also challenged the validity of the Blue Box (support whose distorting impact on prices and production is reduced by limits on production) and perhaps most controversially the Development Box of measures that are allowed in developing countries, such as subsidies for investment, inputs and diversification (Article 6.2). He observed that the original big subsidisers — EU and US — have now been joined by China and India.

Vitalis is said to have warned delegations that they would have to grapple with export restrictions — an issue several experts and delegations said needed better disciplines because of the experience of export restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic and food price rises caused by the war in Ukraine.

This, together with an appropriate way of dealing with public stockholding, is needed to show that members are serious in dealing with food insecurity, he said.

Vitalis also reportedly reminded negotiators of their commitment to reduce support for cotton in richer countries, which is hurting poor producers, adding that this too is part of the imperative to make production sustainable.

Vitalis had thrown down the challenges. The response seems to have been muted.

Some delegations are said to have reiterated their official position that the “mandate” for the negotiations has to be respected, an argument usually made to resist other members’ attempts to introduce new issues, while existing ones are unresolved.

Main takeaways

One attendee said the main message participants would have taken away with them was about the changing context confronting agricultural trade: sustainability, climate change and food security. Analysis covering these challenges were presented in plenary sessions by eight experts.


If we could bottle the spirit we had here today and take it with us … then I really have hope for us to go somewhere with agriculture

— Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala,
WTO chief

According to a WTO website news story, Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala considered the discussions to have been in an “extremely constructive spirit”. She said the objective of “getting everyone out of their comfort zone” had been achieved.

The report says she told participants: “If we could bottle the spirit we had here today and take it with us, it would be a very good takeaway. If we are able to do this, then I really have hope for us to go somewhere with agriculture.”

Okonjo-Iweala seems to have been more upbeat than some attendees.

Unlike the one on fisheries subsidies, which was in Evian in neighbouring France, this retreat was on-site at the WTO headquarters in Geneva.

With delegations from most of the 164 members, gathered in the WTO’s largest and most formal meeting room, organisers would have struggled to create informality.

Participants were said to be mainly ambassadors to the WTO, accompanied by an additional delegate, usually an agriculture attaché.

Photo of the podium in the afternoon plenary session, WTO Council Room
Retreat back to the WTO: this time the event was in the main WTO Council Room | WTO/Franck Abdulrahman Ghannam

The break-out sessions of the retreat were held under the Chatham House rule — what was said can be reported but not attributed to individual speakers or their affiliation.

The eight experts’ presentations were in two plenary sessions, with no restrictions on attribution:

  • Máximo Torero, Chief Economist and Assistant Director General, UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) — “Contemporary Challenges in the Food and Agriculture
  • Trudi Hartzenberg, Executive Director, Trade Law Centre (TRALAC) — “Food Security Challenges of Africa: Some Reflections
  • Johan Rockström, Director, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), Professor in Earth System Science at the University of Potsdam — “Food system challenges of breaching Planetary Boundaries
  • Quentin Grafton, Professor of Economics, Australian National University — “Water Risks Today and into the Future and Impact on Food
  • David Laborde, Senior Research Fellow, International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) — “Addressing Food Security for the Future
  • Simplice Nouala Fonkou, Head of Agriculture and Food Security Division, African Union Commission — “Accelerating CAADP [Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme] Implementation to Strengthen the Resilience of African Food Systems
  • Marion Jansen, Director, Trade and Agriculture Directorate, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) — “The Landscape of Agricultural Support
  • Vangelis Vitalis, Deputy Secretary, Trade and Economic, New Zealand Foreign Affairs and Trade Ministry, former chair of WTO agriculture negotiations — “Reforming WTO Agriculture Trade Rules in Light of Contemporary Challenges

Among the themes they discussed were stresses on food systems caused by “climate-induced water insecurity and drought, environmental degradation, the war in Ukraine, and the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the WTO website says.

Also discussed were: food insecurity in Africa, its global repercussions and strengthening its resilience; the current landscape of agricultural support; and reforming WTO agricultural trade rules in light of contemporary challenges

What the experts said

This is how the WTO news story summarised the experts’ contributions:


The numbers don’t look good, and this is something that is happening across the world

— Máximo Torero,
FAO

Máximo Torero on food security: Chronic undernourishment in the last two years has increased by 150 million people, while around 2.3 billion people in the world lack access to adequate food and the international community is far from achieving global nutrition targets.

 “The numbers don’t look good, and this is something that is happening across the world,” said Mr Torero, adding that trade under a universal, open and non-discriminatory multilateral system has never been more crucial to ensure food security and development, as well as to promote environmental sustainability.

Trudi Hartzenberg on Africa: It faces “fundamental food system vulnerability that has many dimensions. … There are growing concerns not only about the immediate crisis dimensions, but a deteriorating trend in food security, at least over the past decade.”

“We need a concerted effort, new approaches, innovative approaches to addressing food insecurity in Africa within the context of our own trade agenda, just as much as we need new approaches, new thinking, new solutions at the multilateral level,” she said.

Johan Rockström on food systems: He noted a growing scientific call for a transformation of the current food production system that not only addresses health resilience and sustainability but also the stability of world trade.

“This is urgent,” he declared. “A lot of attention is required, not least from a WTO that can glue together the global resilience of the food system in the world for the future.”


Unless we do something different … also in terms of current agricultural trajectories and water extractions, we are going to be in serious trouble

— Quentin Grafton
Australian National University

Quentin Grafton on water scarcity: Net food imports will increase in the next decades as a result of greater water stress situations “which are not going away”. In fact, he emphasized, water scarcity will get worse with climate change and rising populations.

“Unless we do something different, unless we move away from business as usual, not only in terms of CO2, methane and greenhouse gas emissions but also in terms of current agricultural trajectories and water extractions, we are going to be in serious trouble,” said Professor Grafton. “And the people who will suffer the most are those poor and vulnerable, particularly in poor countries and large food importing countries.”

David Laborde on food security: It is “all about inequalities” and that opening up markets without thinking about technology transfer will not address sustainability issues that WTO members face.

He also urged members to keep in mind the specific challenges faced by small economies which are likely to get worse in the future and to consider not only responses to current problems in agricultural trade but also those that may need to be addressed in the decades ahead.

Simplice Nouala Fonkou on the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP): It is an initiative that aims to help African countries eliminate hunger and reduce poverty by raising economic growth through agriculture-led development. 

Given natural resource constraints, climate change, and various other shocks, accelerating the implementation of CAADP was critical in strengthening the resilience of African food systems and food security on the continent, he said.

Screenshot of Figure 2.8
Changing picture: how support for farmers has changed over 20 years (negative = penalising farmers. Click the image to see it full size) | OECD Agricultural Policy Monitoring and Evaluation 2022

Marion Jansen on support policies: the OECD’s annual Agricultural Policy Monitoring and Evaluation report, published in June 2022, “has information on 54 OECD and EU countries plus 11 emerging economies,” she noted.  “It contains qualitative information on policy changes in those countries, but also quantitative information that shows how agricultural support is provided to individual producers — often in ways that distort markets and trade.” 

Vangelis Vitalis on updating agricultural trade rules: it’s urgent that members come together and grapple with the challenges facing them.

“We have a war that is affecting agricultural trade,” he said.  “We have COVID. We have the risk of food security and famine. And of course we have a climate crisis. Clearly, as we look out onto the world now, the rules are fragmenting and they are less enforceable than they were.

“We can find common ground and, colleagues, it is urgent that we do so.”


Updates: None so far

Image credits:
African farmer and baby | Annie Spratt, Unsplash licence
Photos from the retreat | WTO/Franck Abdulrahman Ghannam (See slide show on this page)


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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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