WTO Members Weigh Options for Addressing Farm Export Restrictions, Food Aid

22 November 2018

WTO members are debating how to resolve long-standing disagreements over agricultural export restrictions and their impact on humanitarian food aid, sources told Bridges, with the issue taking centre stage during an informal meeting convened on 15 November by the chair of the organisation’s agriculture negotiations. 

Two new submissions from food-importing countries were discussed at the session, which was called by Guyana’s Ambassador John “Deep” Ford. At the same meeting, negotiators also discussed unresolved agricultural export competition issues, which involve measures seen as analogous to export subsidies at the WTO. 

A paper by Singapore highlighted the impact of export restrictions on food bought by the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) for humanitarian aid, while another paper by Japan and five other co-sponsors examined the use of export restrictions more broadly, drawing on governments’ notifications to the World Trade Organization. The US also tabled a submission on tariffs, although sources said this was not discussed in great depth by participants. 

Ford has held a series of meetings this year over different issues under the wider umbrella of the WTO agriculture negotiations. Previous discussions have covered domestic support, public food stockholding, market access, and a proposed new safeguard for developing countries. (See Bridges Weekly, 27 September 2018) 

Members examine WFP challenges in tackling hunger

Singapore’s paper drew on examples from East Africa and the Middle East to show that export prohibitions or restrictions on non-commercial humanitarian food aid have affected the ability of WFP to deliver foodstuffs to people facing hunger in neighbouring countries. 

In one case, a maize export ban imposed in East Africa meant WFP had to buy food from outside the region, raising transport and procurement costs and tripling the time required to deliver food to the people who needed it. “At least 3.9 million meals” were lost as a result, the submission says. 

Similarly, a rice export ban in one country in the Middle East forced WFP to buy food from South Asia instead, costing an additional US$600,000 per month to the agency as a result. “Water damage and infestation during transit” also meant that WFP could feed fewer beneficiaries than would have otherwise been the case. 

Singapore’s paper underscores that export bans and other restrictions on the procurement of humanitarian food aid could hamper countries’ abilities to meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which world leaders adopted in New York three years ago, and in particular the “zero hunger” commitment set out under SDG 2. 

“While the WFP is working to deliver food assistance in emergency situations, export prohibitions or restrictions on foodstuffs purchased for non-commercial humanitarian purposes by the WFP affects their work and the attainment of Sustainable Development Goal 2 of ending hunger, achieving food security and improved nutrition and promoting sustainable agriculture,” the submission says.

Supporting vulnerable populations

While countries at the meeting seemed to agree in principle on the importance of providing humanitarian food aid, there were differences of opinion on how best to address the impact of export restrictions on vulnerable populations. 

Countries such as India emphasised the importance of other trade and food security issues on the WTO agenda, such as the issue of public stockholding for food security purposes. While New Delhi has joined with Beijing and other members of the G-33 coalition to argue that developing countries should be granted more leeway under WTO farm subsidy rules to buy food at government-set prices, efforts to agree on a “permanent solution” in this area have struggled to advance after countries agreed in 2013 to refrain from initiating legal disputes in this area. (See Bridges Daily Update, 7 December 2013

More recently, the WTO’s Buenos Aires ministerial conference last December ended without any consensus outcomes or a roadmap for future work, when deep-seated differences between countries on the issue contributed to a breakdown in the high-level talks. (See Bridges Daily Update, 14 December 2017

Proposals for increased transparency on export restrictions, as well as an exemption for humanitarian food aid, were also among the topics on the negotiating agenda for the Buenos Aires conference. 

Sources told Bridges that some low-income countries reiterated concerns at last week’s meetings that they could it difficult to comply with more onerous transparency obligations. They also said even that advance warning of policy changes could lead traders to stockpile food at times of shortages, potentially exacerbating supply shortfalls. 

Some countries indicated that they saw export restrictions as a useful policy tool for improving food availability on domestic markets at times of food shortages, or for lowering the cost of farm inputs that were used to add value in other domestic industries. 

Transitioning to a new negotiating phase

In the negotiating body, Ford reportedly told trade officials that farm trade talks would soon need to move away from situational analysis and information provision and towards a phase in which members begin exploring options and solving problems. 

The chair was expected to convene a follow-up meeting on 7 December, reviewing progress to date and looking forward to the next phase of talks in 2019. 

Trade officials told Bridges that, by next summer, members would need to establish clarity on the negotiating agenda for the next ministerial conference, which is due to be held in Astana, Kazakhstan, in June 2020. 

Delegates told Bridges that various contentious agricultural trade issues were also likely to come up in discussions next week at the regular Committee on Agriculture, which reviews the implementation of existing commitments and does not deal directly with negotiating new trade rules. 

Among other things, the US has submitted a “counter-notification” on India’s market price support for cotton, providing alternative figures to those which New Delhi has provided to the World Trade Organization. Similarly, Australia has submitted a counter-notification on India’s market price support for sugarcane. 

ICTSD reporting.

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