At a meeting of the agriculture negotiating body on 30 January open to all delegations, the Chair, Ambassador Alparslan Acarsoy of Türkiye, introduced a draft negotiating text for members' consideration. Trade officials present welcomed the draft, which they said could serve as a useful basis for the negotiations among WTO members ahead of the 13th Ministerial Conference (MC13), from 26 to 29 February.
Chair introduces draft text for agriculture negotiations in run-up to MC13
"With only four weeks to go before the 13th Ministerial Conference, the negotiations are entering their final stretch. It’s time to focus on what could be achievable at MC13, and also pave the way for a more substantial outcome at MC14," the Chair said. WTO ministerial conferences, which are the organisation’s highest decision-making body, are normally held every two years.
A “vehicle” to help WTO members engage
At the 30 January meeting, the Chair introduced the five-page draft text, which was circulated to all WTO members on 27 January. He explained that it builds on the negotiating submissions and interventions that members have made, as well as his recent consultations in various formats. With negotiating positions continuing to diverge widely on many topics, the draft aims to strike a "delicate balance" between them and to reflect “as faithfully as possible” the state of play in the ongoing talks, he said.
"It's just a starting point; a vehicle to help you engage with each other," the Chair said.
WTO negotiations on agricultural trade began in 2000 under Article 20 of the Agreement on Agriculture. Ministerial conferences in 2015 and 2013 delivered some outcomes, while the most recent conference in 2022 saw ministers agree to a declaration on food security and a decision on food aid as part of a broader package. However, negotiators have yet to reach agreement on several unresolved topics on the negotiating agenda.
A “sense of direction”
A preambular section provides overall background for the draft text, the Chair said, drawing largely from language agreed upon at MC12 in the Ministerial Declaration on the Emergency Response to Food Insecurity. This section also gives a sense of direction for the continuation of negotiations.
The Chair said that the leading "operative" paragraphs of the draft text touch upon overarching themes and cross-cutting issues, as well as issues that do not fit squarely within specific negotiating topics.
The text also reaffirms the complementary role played by agricultural production and trade to ensure food security and includes as an immediate deliverable the possible exemption of food imported by least developed countries (LDCs) and net food importing developing countries (NFIDCs) for their domestic consumption from export restrictions.
The text also reaffirms the importance of special and differential treatment in favour of developing countries and includes the potential exemption of LDCs from any future farm support reduction commitments to be agreed in the negotiations.
The draft text also makes reference to a factual report summarizing members' positions on all agricultural topics, which the Chair said would be issued soon. The text suggests that members commit to actively resume the negotiations after MC13, building on work undertaken as well as on future submissions, to avoid losing precious time in the spring.
Outstanding negotiating topics
The next sections of the draft text outline possible ways forward on seven negotiating topics in the area of food and agriculture. These cover domestic support to the farm sector; access to agricultural markets; a proposed new “special safeguard mechanism” (SSM), which would allow developing countries to raise tariffs temporarily in the event of a sudden surge in import volumes or drop in prices; export restrictions on food; “export competition”, covering measures that are seen as similar to export subsidies; cotton; and the procurement of food at government-set prices under developing countries’ public stockholding programmes for food security purposes.
The Chair emphasized that domestic support remains both the most important and the most sensitive issue for many members. Given the many areas of divergence among them on this topic, the text envisages that WTO members agree on “modalities” - negotiators’ jargon meaning formulas for reduction commitments, and exceptions to them - by MC14. It invites members to identify the forms of support that would be included in the reform and that would be subject to reduction commitments.
In the area of improvements to market access, the text again suggests that members agree on “modalities” by MC14, with a view to maintaining balance across different negotiating topics. However, it acknowledges the differences of views among members on what can realistically be achieved by MC14 on market access as well as on other topics. The text also highlights specific elements which members have proposed for future work on market access and emphasizes the importance of technical engagement among members to facilitate informed discussions.
The Chair recalled the mandate to negotiate a “special safeguard mechanism” and noted that members continue to differ on whether progress in this area should be linked to improvements in market access for agricultural goods. Once again, the text envisages that members reach agreement on “modalities” by MC14.
On export restrictions on food, the Chair said he had sought to capture the essence of talks over the last year in the negotiating body on how to improve the transparency and predictability in this area. The text also sets out a number of elements proposed by some members to be addressed in post-MC13 work, building on the proposals on the table.
The Chair highlighted that there had been little discussion on export competition in the negotiation forum over the past year, and that more work had been done in the regular Committee on Agriculture on this topic.
The text reaffirms members' intention to continue their work in both export restrictions and export competition, with a suggested timeline for achieving tangible progress by MC14.
On cotton, the Chair stressed the need to make progress on cotton, addressing both trade and development elements. The text reaffirms the commitment made 20 years ago by ministers to address cotton ambitiously, expeditiously and specifically within the agriculture negotiations. It proposes more specifically a timeline for agreeing on “modalities” for substantially reducing trade-distorting domestic support for cotton by MC14, aligned with the target for domestic support overall.
Negotiators have found that the most challenging issue is the question of how to devise a “permanent solution” to the difficulties some developing countries say they face under WTO rules when buying food as part of their public stockholding programmes, the Chair said. While a large number of developing countries have advocated for a solution in this area to be based on their May 2022 proposal in JOB/AG/229, other countries – both developed and developing - have expressed strong reservations with this proposal in its current form and have suggested that members address this topic in parallel with the question of domestic support.
In this area, the Chair explained that the text presents two options. The first calls for the adoption of a permanent solution, based on a to-be-negotiated text in an annex. The second option involves setting parameters for further negotiations in this area, with the goal of agreeing and adopting a permanent solution by MC14.
Members commended the Chair for his efforts in preparing the text, which they recognized could serve as a good basis for further discussion. Trade officials at the meeting also provided preliminary feedback on the draft, with many of them saying their capitals needed more time to review it.
The Chair said he intends to convene a first series of "drafting sessions" on 1-2 and 5 February. WTO members will be invited to provide suggestions on each section of the draft text.
The WTO's agriculture negotiations encompass various topics, including domestic support, market access, export competition, export restrictions, cotton, public stockholding for food security purposes, the special safeguard mechanism and the cross-cutting issue of transparency.
More on the WTO agriculture negotiations: WTO | Agriculture — negotiations
A glossary of WTO agriculture negotiations terms can be found at this link: WTO | Glossary by Subject
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