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Kensington Speer, trainee, CUTS International Geneva

Hosted by the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), the Institute for Agricultural and Trade Policy (IATP), and the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) as part of IISD’s second Center for Trade and Sustainability, a roundtable discussed how the World Trade Organization (WTO rules can better prevent and mitigate food crises.

The event, convened during the Twelfth WTO Ministerial Conference (MC12) on 13 June 2022, aimed to identify: the areas of agriculture negotiations that are most relevant to the food security of WTO members; gaps in WTO negotiations on agriculture, which is a priority for food security of WTO members; and opportunities for cooperation between the WTO and other international organizations to improve the resilience of the global food system to crises.

Jonathan Hepburn, WTO adviser, chaired the meeting. Speakers discussed how WTO rules can prevent and mitigate the effects of food crises, as well as the challenges the Organization faces in doing so.

Ranja Sengupta, senior fellow at the Third World Network (TWN), said that “all crises will have a food security face.”

Speakers stressed that the combined effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine have exacerbated food insecurity and led to a sharp rise in food prices around the world. They discussed issues such as transparency, export restrictions and policy flexibility for developing countries within the WTO. Agreement on agriculture (AoA).

All speakers emphasized the importance of transparency in how the WTO handles food crises. Sengupta stressed that problems with the WTO process, such as “green room talks” involving only a few elected members, contribute to a general lack of policies to meet the needs of developing countries. This practice, she says, is detrimental to transparency, as it deprives most WTO members, as well as civil society organizations (CSOs), of the right to participate in and contribute to WTO negotiations.

Annelis Deuss, Agricultural Economist at the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, explained how transparency prevents and mitigate food crises by reducing market uncertainty, identifying bottlenecks and identifying risks in agricultural trade. She articulated that “transparency is not automatic” and requires investment in information gathering, policy development and communication to function properly. She noted that WTO cooperation with other international organizations can increase transparency, ensure monitoring and reduce duplication of efforts to ensure food security. Deuss provided information on short-term transparency tools to help members track and manage the impact of agricultural trade policies, such as Agricultural Market Information System (AMIS) Market Monitor, IFPRI Food Export Restriction Tracker, Global Trade Alertand AMIS Policy Database.

Participants stressed that export restrictions have become a particularly pressing issue for the transparency of international agri-food trade, as some countries have responded to the current food crisis by imposing export restrictions on staple foods such as wheat. Valeria Pinheiro, IFPRI Senior Research Coordinator, outlined problems with the transparency of export restrictions at the WTO, including low notification rates and late notifications, which are primarily due to “not a lack of capacity, but a lack of political will.” She referred to the detrimental long-term effects of export restrictions and presented data on how developing countries were most affected by export restrictions.

Sengupta agreed that countries should ideally lift export restrictions, but acknowledged their effectiveness for developing countries as a temporary food security measure during a crisis. Pinheiro suggested that long-term work on transparency would allow developing countries to be compensated for the removal of export restrictions.

Sengupta identified the lack of policy flexibility under the AoA as another obstacle that developing countries face, as it impedes the implementation of food security measures tailored to the specific circumstances of the country. Sengupta, along with Sophia Murphy, Executive Director of the IATP, argued that expanding agri-food markets in developing countries could help stabilize global markets.

Sengupta also said that developing countries want to address deeper structural issues in the WTO and AoA in the future, rather than continuing to use short-term “workarounds”.

Taking a broader view of the WTO’s agri-food policy, Murphy explained that the Valuation Agreement was “destined for revision”, but that initial intent was not implemented, leaving “fundamental gaps” in the Valuation Agreement and limited WTO confidence building. and role in enforcing the rules. She argued that the WTO operates on the assumption that the state is the source of market distortions, not realizing how the market itself can distort agrifood trade.

In closing, Murphy stressed that the work of the WTO intersects with human rights, climate change adaptation, international and domestic politics, and interacts with food security policies beyond the AoA, such as subsidies for fossil fuels and fisheries. She stressed that developed and developing countries face many similar major food security issues that they could work together to address, such as rural poverty and social exclusion.

IISD second center of trade and sustainable development Convened online from 13 to 15 June 2022. [IISD Knowledge Hub Sources]

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