BANGKOK—World Trade Organization (WTO) members must make strides in agriculture negotiations to secure a deal in next year’s Ministerial Conference (MC) that would advance food security among nations amid more than two decades of stalled talks on farm trade, its director-general said.
WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala reminded the member-countries they must “make progress” on “reforming agriculture trade,” which she noted has been ongoing for “more than two decades” with limited success.
“We’ve been negotiating on this for more than two decades, with success in eliminating export subsidies. But big issues related to farm subsidies and tariffs remain unresolved,” Okonjo-Iweala pointed out in a video message addressed to Southeast Asian and Oceanian journalists attending a regional workshop here.
Okonjo-Iweala said the WTO member-countries must also put emphasis on how to “address” the “growing concerns” on food security in the negotiation table.
“We need to look at how the growing concerns regarding food security can be incorporated and addressed holistically in the discussions,” the Director-General said. “I do hope we can find a sensible and pragmatic approach to food security that will set members on the path to further progress in the years ahead,” she added.
Agricultural negotiations at the consensus-driven WTO have been stagnant at best since its member-countries launched the Doha Development Agenda in 2001, which set forth their vision of further reforming farm trade in three areas: market access, domestic support and export subsidies.
The last time that the multilateral body inched close to delivering a substantive package on agriculture talks was in 2013, when member-countries issued a “strong” commitment to observe “utmost restraint” in using any form of export subsidies, which they deemed the “worst distortion” of agricultural trade.
Agriculture negotiations have been a priority for the Philippines since it joined the WTO in 1995. It has been even more active in the recent decade, particularly in the areas of special safeguard mechanism (SSM) as well as public stockholding programs.
In fact, the Philippines has been in the forefront of advancing a new and better SSM in the rules-based trading system. An SSM is a trade tool that allows the country to temporarily raise tariffs to protect domestic agricultural sectors impacted by sudden influx of imports.
The Philippines sought to “strengthen” SSM in the MC 12 held in June 2022 in Geneva, Switzerland; however, the WTO members did not reach a consensus to close a deal on agriculture talks in general. (Related story: https://businessmirror.com.ph/2022/06/13/manila-seeks-wto-deal-on-ssm-fisheries)
The draft agreement text on agriculture negotiations at MC 12 stipulated that talks on SSM as well as public stockholding programs shall continue post-MC 12 with the goal of agreeing and adopting certain solutions at MC 13.
Former Philippine agriculture officials, who were part of the country’s negotiation team at MC 12, expressed optimism that the WTO would finally adopt a decision on SSM and PSH come MC 13. (Related story: https://businessmirror.com.ph/2022/06/27/phl-sees-wto-reaching-deal-on-ssm-and-public-food-stocks-in-2023)
It was in MC 10 held at Nairobi, Kenya in 2015 when WTO members adopted a decision to initiate talks on coming up with a SSM for developing countries.
The MC is the WTO’s highest policy-making body, wherein trade ministers from all 164 member-countries meet biennially to negotiate on matters affecting global trade multilaterally. The next MC will be held in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates in February next year.
Ratify fisheries deal
THE WTO Director-General also urged Southeast Asian and Oceanian countries to fast-track ratification of the fisheries deal that seeks to curb harmful fisheries subsidies that lead to overfishing and illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. In order for the Agreement on Fisheries to take effect, at least two-thirds of the WTO members must ratify it by depositing their “instruments of acceptance” with the multilateral body.
Earlier this month, the United States became the fourth WTO member-country to ratify the Agreement on Fisheries, since the deal was reached nine months ago. In Southeast Asia, only Singapore has ratified the fisheries agreement so far. Earlier this year, the Philippines pronounced that it is now fast-tracking the ratification of the fisheries accord. (Related story: https://businessmirror.com.ph/2023/01/23/dti-phl-in-process-of-ratifying-accord-on-fisheries-subsidies)
“And we need to move quicker on ratifying the agreement reached last June, which will only enter into force once two-thirds of the WTO membership has accepted it,” Okonjo-Iweala said. “I’m happy that Singapore is one of four WTO members that have done so at this time; we need other countries in the region to come on board so that we can start helping our oceans to recover,” she added.
Okonjo-Iweala also prodded WTO members to complete the “second wave” of negotiations on fisheries subsidies “by agreeing on new disciplines for harmful subsidies that contribute to overfishing and overcapacity, while at the same time taking into account the needs of fishing communities in developing and least developed countries.”
The Philippine has supported the fisheries agreement, arguing that it would help in protecting and preserving fisheries stocks particularly in so-called “disputed waters.” (Related stories: https://businessmirror.com.ph/2022/11/01/amid-protest-bfar-backswto-deal-on-fish-subsidies and https://businessmirror.com.ph/2022/06/15/phl-backs-wto-fund-for-fisheries-subsidies)
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