WTO Members Table Proposals on Agricultural Export Restrictions

2 November 2011

Two groups of WTO members have presented separate proposals on the controversial issue of agricultural export restrictions, as an unofficial deadline for submitting items for the agenda of the global trade body's December ministerial conference was reached on Wednesday 2 November.

Although agriculture ministers from the G-20 group of major economies agreed in June to remove food export restrictions or extraordinary taxes on humanitarian aid purchased by the UN World Food Programme, the same countries appear to have been unable to agree on proposals for adopting such language at the WTO (see Bridges Weekly, 29 June 2011 and 5 October 2011, respectively).

Agricultural export restrictions have been widely criticised for exacerbating price hikes and food shortages, penalising the poorest consumers in developing countries (see Bridges Weekly, 11 May 2011).

The EU has therefore tabled the proposal along with various other G-20 countries, but without the support of Argentina, Brazil, China, India and South Africa, who have opposed the move, and also without the US, which is believed to favour more far-reaching disciplines on export restrictions.

Although they are not G-20 members, Costa Rica, Singapore, and Switzerland have also reportedly joined the EU as co-sponsors of the proposal.

According to a draft of the proposal seen by Bridges, the supporters propose that all WTO members adopt text stating that they "agree to remove food export restrictions or extraordinary taxes for food purchased for non-commercial humanitarian purposes by the World Food Programme (WFP) and we agree not to impose them in the future" - the same wording that was agreed upon by G-20 agriculture ministers this summer.

India is believed to have circulated alternative text stating simply that WTO members 'take note' of the G-20 farm ministers' statement.

While a WTO ministerial declaration would not be legally binding, it could, in theory, be taken into consideration by a dispute settlement panel. However, trade officials have questioned whether WTO members would in fact be likely ever to bring disputes on this issue (see Bridges Weekly, 5 October 2011).

It remains unclear whether the G-20 summit in Cannes will endorse the agriculture ministers' action plan, given the continued divergence on the issue within the group (see related article in this issue). Russia, which is still officially in the process of joining the WTO, has also tended to resist measures that might restrict its ability to impose agricultural export restrictions.

A WTO work programme on trade and food security?

A group of net food-importing developing countries (NFIDCs) have also submitted a proposal for ministers to consider in December, calling for a work programme to mitigate the impact of food price volatility on least developed countries (LDCs) and NFIDCs.

The draft text calls for a comprehensive work programme to ensure that NFIDCs and LDCs can access adequate supplies of basic foodstuffs; to "explore the possibility" of developing rules to exempt countries in these two groups from export restrictions imposed by other WTO members that are major exporters of these foodstuffs; and to help NFIDCs and LDCs access trade financing on concessional terms, possibly through a fund that would be set up for this purpose.

An earlier paper tabled by the NFIDC group as part of the Doha trade negotiations sought more extensive disciplines on agricultural export restrictions at the WTO (see Bridges Weekly, 6 April 2011). The proposal would have expressly forbidden the imposition of export restrictions, along with prohibitions on exports to NFIDCs or LDCs from other countries.

Trade sources familiar with the proposal said that the new text was focused more specifically on restrictions imposed by major food exporters, in a bid to foster consensus more broadly across the WTO membership.

Consultations on both proposals are likely to continue ahead of the next meeting of the WTO's General Council, trade sources said. The General Council is the organisation's highest decision-making body outside of the ministerial conferences, and is next scheduled to meet on 1-2 December.

ICTSD reporting.

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