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

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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Are retreats the new pandemic at the World Trade Organization?

Following the ‘success’ in June, the new enthusiasm for ‘retreats’ suggests WTO members don’t actually know what to do

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED OCTOBER 8, 2022 | UPDATED NOVEMBER 13, 2022

An epidemic of retreats is breaking out at the World Trade Organization (WTO).

On Monday October 10, 2022, WTO members gathered in Evian in France (cross the lake and turn left) to talk about fish. A fortnight later they were back on the Geneva shore to discuss agriculture. Not long after, they talked about “WTO reform”.

There’s even a call to do the same on intellectual property. The list is getting longer. The epidemic could become a pandemic.

Continue reading “Are retreats the new pandemic at the World Trade Organization?”

WTO members achieve breakthrough, but the tough part is what happens next

It might seem churlish to draw attention to what was lacking, but the achievements that were rightly hailed are not the end of the story.

See also
The successful WTO Conference saw one big failure: agriculture | Have we just seen the funeral of the WTO ‘single undertaking’? | Our scorecards

By Peter Ungphakorn and Robert Wolfe
POSTED JUNE 30, 2022 | UPDATED JUNE 30, 2022

As a beautiful sun rose over the World Trade Organization’s lakeside headquarters in Geneva on June 17, 2022, exhausted delegates sealed a package of decisions and declarations that would give the beleaguered WTO new direction for the next couple of years.

Much has already been written about the achievement of the 12–17 June WTO Ministerial Conference, after it was extended by almost two days of sometimes chaotic round-the-clock bargaining.

Most of the analysis focuses on what was achieved, often with a sense of relief that the WTO was back on track, mixed with a warning that much still needs to be done.

Perhaps the biggest success was that a package was agreed by ministers, including an Outcome Document — which the previous ministerial conference failed to do.

Often missing is recognition of how hard it was to achieve this limited outcome.

Continue reading “WTO members achieve breakthrough, but the tough part is what happens next”

Touch and go at the WTO. Is the director-general’s optimism justified?

The meaning of “success” is not the same for the Ministerial Conference’s organisers as it is for outsiders

By Peter Ungphakorn and Robert Wolfe
POSTED JUNE 9, 2022 | UPDATED JUNE 12, 2022

How many times can a curtain go up and down? This is our second curtain-raiser for the World Trade Organization’s 12th Ministerial Conference, now rescheduled for June 12–15, 2022.

As we wrote when the meeting was postponed in late 2021, the WTO risks disappearing into a chasm of petty procedural wrangling over what to talk about, and how to move forward.

After delays in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic, and more recently the threat to multilateralism posed by Russia, the fact of it happening at all will be taken as a success. But have WTO members been able to move closer to significant agreement on anything?

This time our curtain-raiser proposes some benchmarks for assessment. There’s even a scorecard at the end for anyone following along at home.

Continue reading “Touch and go at the WTO. Is the director-general’s optimism justified?”

‘Quad’ raise hopes of a COVID-19 deal and revival for the beleaguered WTO

Not done yet, but the group-of-four could give the WTO some long-awaited success

Updates
June 17, 2022 — members agree on the waiver at the Ministerial Conference.

From mid-May to June 10 — members work on the compromise draft and discuss further revisions. The text submitted to the Ministerial Conference is here. Earlier versions are here.

May 19, 2022 — An informal meeting to take stock of two days of real negotiation on the compromise among about 30 delegations on May 16 and 18, described by chair Lansana Gberie (Sierra Leone’s ambassador) as “arduous”.

WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala urged members on all sides to sort out their reservations over the proposed compromise, so that a deal on waiving some intellectual property protection for COVID-19 can be struck by the Jun 12-15 Ministerial Conference. See this Twitter thread.

May 3, 6 and 10, 2022 — The compromise text was finally put to the rest of the membership at a May 3 informal meeting — WTO news story, and the text (html or pdf) — and discussed in a May 6 formal intellectual property council meeting and in the General Council on May 10. Both bodies consist of the full WTO membership.

Members were non-committal about accepting or rejecting the text. But this compromise draft allowed them for the first time to agree broadly to start negotiating on a text in the search for a solution. None of the Quad presented the text as their own, just an attempt to secure an agreement.

See this twitter thread and this WTO news story on the General Council meeting, and this earlier Twitter thread and WTO news story on the intellectual property council. The blog post below had been updated accordingly.

March 28, 2022 — Three of the “Quad” could still be consulting internally on whether to accept the compromise, according to Geneva trade sources.

South Africa is said to have told members in an informal General Council meeting on March 28 that the draft was still being discussed domestically. Only the EU is understood to have completed its internal processes and to have accepted the draft, while India and the United States had not yet confirmed their support for it.

The draft would still have to go to the full membership in the intellectual property council, but no date has been set for the council’s next meeting.

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED MARCH 17, 2022 | UPDATED JUNE 17, 2022

Behind-the-scenes negotiations by four key members have raised the prospect of an agreement on intellectual property and the COVID-19 pandemic, which would also help lift the World Trade Organization out of one of its worst crises.


For nearly a year, the United States, […] has worked constructively with other WTO Members to facilitate discussions and bridge differences that might lead to […] consensus across the 164 Members of the World Trade Organization to help end the pandemic.

In the days ahead, […] we look forward to continuing our engagement with members of Congress and stakeholders as all WTO Members consider the text released by the WTO Director-General.

Statement by US ambassador to the WTO María Pagán, May 3, 2022

News broke in mid-March 2022 that the four — the EU, India, South Africa and the US — had agreed on a compromise text on waiving the obligation to protect intellectual property related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

A slightly modified text was circulated to members on May 3, 2022. A cover letter from WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala summarised how the proposed compromise was negotiated.

Although members offered some initial reactions in meetings over the following week, it still had to be negotiated, agreed, and possibly amended by the WTO’s membership of 164. (See this twitter thread and this WTO news story on the General Council meeting, and earlier this Twitter thread and this WTO news story on the intellectual property council.)

Anything can happen in that process, but so far the compromise has not been rejected outright — it has been accepted as a basis for negotiations. After all, most of those driving the main positions are among the four.

The likelihood of a breakthrough was first reported by Priti Patnaik of Geneva Health Files on March 11.

A month earlier she had broken news of what turns out to be an important part of the compromise — to limit the countries eligible to use the waiver. She reported that India and China would be excluded and that India would resist. How accurate that was at the time is unconfirmed, but the outcome would exclude China and not India.

What are the implications of the proposed compromise? How does it fit into the earlier debate about the waiver? How does it differ from the original proposal?

These are some immediate thoughts. Underlying them are two fundamental questions. Both, in totally different ways, are important:

  • What would this do for dealing with the pandemic?
  • What would this do for the WTO?

Some of the answers will emerge when the full membership gets down to negotiating the compromise in the WTO body responsible for intellectual property, the TRIPS Council. (TRIPS is trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights.)

Continue reading “‘Quad’ raise hopes of a COVID-19 deal and revival for the beleaguered WTO”

No agreement on India’s call for WTO ministers to discuss COVID-19 waiver

Many delegations argued that ministers meeting online would not be able to break the deadlock

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED JANUARY 10, 2022 | UPDATED JANUARY 11, 2022

India’s call for an online WTO ministerial meeting to  discuss the proposed intellectual property waiver for COVID-19 fell well short of consensus at an informal General Council meeting today (January 10, 2022).

Many delegations countering that members would have to be much closer to agreement on the proposed waiver before a meeting of ministers would be able to contribute to a solution, said sources familiar with today’s discussion of just over two hours.

Continue reading “No agreement on India’s call for WTO ministers to discuss COVID-19 waiver”

Good news and bad news from the scrapped WTO Ministerial Conference

WTO members have more time to deal with issues that they might, at a pinch, agree on, but momentum could be lost too

New dates
On February 23, 2022, WTO members meeting as the General Council
agreed to reschedule the Ministerial Conference for the week of June 13

By Peter Ungphakorn and Robert Wolfe
POSTED DECEMBER 6, 2021 | UPDATED FEBRUARY 24, 2022

What was lost by postponing the World Trade Organization’s 12th Ministerial Conference? Procedurally, not much. What happens next depends on whether WTO members make the best of the opportunity.

Before the conference was scheduled to start, we argued that the solutions to the impasse in the WTO must come from the capitals of the WTO’s 164 members before anything significant can be done at the WTO’s Geneva headquarters — in effect: “reform in capitals before reforming the WTO in Geneva”.

We still think that, but at least momentum has been created in some governments. The danger is that this opportunity will be lost.

Continue reading “Good news and bad news from the scrapped WTO Ministerial Conference”

Postponed WTO conference saves delegates from grappling with declaration on pandemic

Members unable to endorse David Walker’s draft ministerial declaration

Updates
May 9, 2022 — In 2022, Honduras Ambassador Dacio Castillo took over as “facilitator”. He continued to modify the draft according to members’ comments. The aim was to agree on the text for the upcoming Ministerial Conference in parallel with a compromise deal on intellectual property. Castillo had succeeded Walker as General Council chair for 2021. See the final paragraph here.

New dates — On February 23, 2022, WTO members meeting as the General Council
agreed to reschedule the Ministerial Conference for the week of June 13. The dates were later fixed for June 12–15.

Late on Friday November 26, 2021, WTO members had agreed in an urgently-called meeting to postpone indefinitely the four-day Ministerial Conference due to start the following Tuesday.

The reason was new travel restrictions announced by Switzerland earlier in the day after a new COVID-19 variant of concern was discovered in southern Africa. The variant had also been detected in Belgium, Hong Kong and Israel.

Switzerland banned flights from southern Africa and required COVID-19 tests and quarantine for travellers from the region and the three other countries. This would effectively prevent ministers and officials from those countries from attending the WTO Conference in Geneva.

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED NOVEMBER 26, 2021 | UPDATED MAY 20, 2022

Four days before trade ministers were due to gather for the first World Trade Organization (WTO) Ministerial Conference in four years, their delegates in Geneva were divided on what to recommend they should say in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The disagreement on Friday (November 26, 2021) centred on parts of a draft ministerial declaration and post-conference action plan designed to reflect members’ shared approach to the pandemic and how they would address their differences through the action plan.

The delegates had then intended to continue to try to break the deadlock over the weekend. But their efforts have been interrupted because the Ministerial Conference is now postponed as a result of new Swiss travel and quarantine restrictions.

Continue reading “Postponed WTO conference saves delegates from grappling with declaration on pandemic”

NGO letter on COVID-19 and WTO reform — persuasive or to be ignored?

If only the authors had read the minutes to see what WTO members are actually saying

BEFORE I BEGIN
I know. This is asking for trouble. Commenting critically on the letter will trigger accusations (again) that I am an “enemy” of the “TRIPS waiver” and happy to see people die from the pandemic. Neither is true.

For those who believe outright that the WTO is evil and that intellectual property protection is its devilish handmaiden, there is no point in reading this. They are immune to complexity and facts. Sadly, too much of the NGO letter adopts that tone.

But if we are interested in looking beyond the rhetoric at what is really happening between countries in the WTO, then the letter misses its target. A few delegations may use it as a weapon in the debate. Others, rather than being persuaded by the letter, will simply dismiss it on the grounds that “they don’t know what they are talking about”, particularly on what the reality is in the WTO.

On one point I agree with the letter: the complaint about reduced facilities for non-governmental organisations at WTO ministerial conferences. The more access they have, the better informed they will be.

(Note this now has a link to David Walker’s November 22, 2021 draft)

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED NOVEMBER 23, 2021 | UPDATED NOVEMBER 26, 2021

Two weeks before the World Trade Organization’s Ministerial Conference, over 80 non-governmental organisations wrote to WTO director-general Nogozi Okonjo-Iweala and all WTO members, slamming “sham” work on trade and COVID-19 at the expense of poorer countries.

The letter (full text below) also opposed current moves to reform the way the WTO works, particularly the increased use of negotiations among subsets of the membership when consensus is elusive among the full membership.

The endorsing organisations include some international heavyweights such as Amnesty and Oxfam, alongside a long list of national groups — health, poverty-alleviation and environmental campaigners, labour unions and more.

Their strongly-worded attack lands direct hits on two issues that are important for Okonjo-Iweala herself.

It also misrepresents how many developing countries see their own interests on these subjects. It has failed to look properly at what is actually going on, what countries themselves have said, and it condemns processes that many developing countries consider to be essential.

Continue reading “NGO letter on COVID-19 and WTO reform — persuasive or to be ignored?”

‘A lot rests on Members’ shoulders’ — sixth WTO fisheries text circulated

“I have seen first-hand members’ collective commitment and dedication. … I genuinely believe that we can deliver a balanced a meaningful outcome on fisheries subsidies by MC12”

UPDATES
See “Update on WTO fisheries subsidies talks”,
including the drafts the chair sent to the rescheduled Ministerial Conference on June 10, 2022 and the final agreement

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED NOVEMBER 10, 2021 | UPDATED JUNE 11, 2022

The chair of the WTO fisheries subsidies negotiations circulated a new draft agreement on November 8, 2021, saying “I genuinely believe that we can deliver a balanced a meaningful outcome on fisheries subsidies” by the Ministerial Conference at the end of this month.

“The eyes of the world are really on us,” WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala told ambassadors at the negotiations meeting where the new text was introduced.

“Time is short and I believe that this text reflects a very important step toward a final outcome. I really see a significant rebalancing of the provisions, including those pertaining to special and differential treatment, while, at the same time, maintaining the level of ambition.”

The new draft is the sixth compiled and circulated by the chair, Ambassador Santiago Wills of Colombia, since June 2020, the last three released as public documents since May this year.

It is based on negotiations since September and was presented to a meeting of heads of delegations (usually ambassadors) of the WTO’s 164 members.

Continue reading “‘A lot rests on Members’ shoulders’ — sixth WTO fisheries text circulated”