At this meeting, trade negotiators from South and Southeast Asia exchanged views on their interests and way forward for WTO negotiations on agriculture ahead of the 12th ministerial conference. Discussions benefited from the findings of a note developed by CUTS for the occasion. The note analysed ongoing negotiations in the Committee on Agriculture from the perspective of seven South and Southeast Asian countries, and identified several commonalities among the agricultural sectors of these countries including the economic importance of the sector in providing employment.
The meeting started with some introductory remarks by Rashid S. Kaukab, CUTS International Geneva, Executive Director who welcomed the delegates, thanked them for their participation despite their busy schedules, and briefly outlined the main objectives of the meeting.
Kyle de Klerk, Fellow, CUTS International Geneva presented a summary of the main findings of the note “Agriculture Negotiations and WTO MC12: A Common Path Forward for Select South and South-East Asian Countries”. The presentation first outlined some common characteristics of the respective agricultural sectors of participating countries. It found that the sector contributed an average of 17% to GDP and employs an average of 45% of the labour force of each country. Thus, the sector is a crucial part of all countries post-covid recovery plans meaning that increasing exports and growing sector is particularly important for all members. Moreover, all participating countries are reliant on global agri-food markets for domestic food security, with an average agri-food trade deficit of $609 million in 2020. Therefore, participating members also have a collective interest in minimizing volatility of international agricultural markets, promoting their further liberalisation, and increasing market penetration of members respective agri-food exports.
To this end the presentation then discussed multiple ways for participating delegates to advance a common agenda in the agriculture negotiations at MC12. These recommendations addressed domestic support reform, public stockholding, export restrictions, market access, export competition, sanitary and phytosanitary standards, and last transparency obligations. Some key recommendations included pushing for the elimination of Bound Aggregate Measure of Support above the de minimus threshold, updating the reference price used in the Agreement on Agriculture to calculate price support, pushing for the exemption of World Food Programme purchases from export restrictions, negotiating for the ‘tariffication’ of non-ad valorem agricultural tariffs, proposing an interim trial period for developing country Special Safeguarding Mechanism, integrating a recognition of ‘equivalence’ into the draft SPS statement, and exploring the implementation of an oversight system in the Committee on Agriculture similar to the Specific Trade Concern mechanism.
The floor was then opened for discussion and feedback from participating delegates. Delegates thanked CUTS for organizing the meeting and expressed their appreciation for the note, which they found very informative, comprehensive and pertinent to the current negotiations. They also expressed their appreciation for the presentation, which they found clarifying. Delegates then shared the collective experiences of their respective agricultural sectors, expressing the underlying importance of the sector particularly in times of crisis, for example, agriculture is providing the means of employment and support to the industrial and services sector labour force that has been rendered unemployed due to COVID-19. They also emphasised the centrality of market access in the wider negotiations, particularly the need to simplify members’ agriculture tariff regimes. Delegates then expressed their regret that many of the proposals are unlikely to be achieved by MC12 given that members opinions remain divergent on many issues. However, they agreed that many of the recommendations could be used to inform a post-MC 12 work programme. Delegates then expressed their desire for countries to refrain from imposing agriculture export restrictions, particularly in times of crisis. They also discussed an incoming proposal to the Committee on Agriculture which aimed to create a subgroup dedicated to discussions on food security, which would be introduced tomorrow. Discussions also touched on food safety, the need for a WTO outcome on COVID-19, and the need to enhance climate adaptation measures in developing countries to protect agriculture.
In conclusion, Rashid S. Kaukab thanked the delegates for their participation and positive feedback, expressed his appreciation at their continued collaboration, and wished them good luck in the ongoing agriculture negotiations. CUTS will remain in touch with all participants, who are welcome to approach staff regarding any further clarification or discussion on the contents of the note and more generally.