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WTO talks collapse, no agreement on food security

WTO talks collapse, no agreement on food security
December 14
11:25 2017

BUENOS AIRES: Bringing disappointment to developing countries like India, the talks at the WTO’s 11th ministerial conference collapsed, with the US going back on its commitment to find a permanent solution to the public food stockholding issue.

The four-day conference, which ended without a ministerial declaration or any substantive outcome, did manage to make some feeble progress on fisheries and e-commerce by agreeing to work programs.

As the US refused to engage, the 164-member World Trade Organization (WTO), it failed to reach a common ground for resolving the food security issue, a demand raised prominently by India.

Even after hectic parleys, intense lobbying and prolonged posturing, the member nations failed to break an impasse over public food stockholding, disappointing a number of member states, especially the developing ones.

Following the breakdown of talks, there was no ministerial declaration, though conference chair and Argentinean Minister Susana Malcorra made a statement highlighting the developments.

For India, failure to successfully push the food security issue was a disappointment, but the officials took comfort from the fact that the country did not yield any ground on other issues and kept its defensive interests in various fields intact.

The fate of the ministerial conference was sealed after Assistant US Trade Representative Sharon Bomer Lauritsen in a small group meeting said permanent solution to the food stockholding issue was not acceptable to America.

“Unfortunately, the strong position of one member against agriculture reform based on current WTO mandates and rules led to a deadlock without any outcome on agriculture or even a work program for the next two years,” said a statement issued by India at the end of the conference.

A dejected WTO Director General Roberto Azevedo expressed disappointment over the way the negotiations progressed and called for soul-searching among the member countries. In multilateral negotiations, he added, “you do not get what you want, but you get what is possible”.

Admitting failure, Malcorra said, “We fell short on various issues, but there is life after Buenos Aires… We need to find ways for removing deadlock and move forward.”

The Indian team led by Commerce and Industry Minister Suresh Prabhu, in cooperation with the G33 grouping, had pitched hard for permanent solution to food security issue as it was crucial for livelihood of 800 million people across the globe.

Under the global trade norms, a WTO member country’s food subsidy bill should not breach the limit of 10 per cent of the value of production based on the reference price of 1986-88.

Apprehending that full implementation of food security program may result in breach of the WTO cap, India has been seeking amendments in the formula to calculate the food subsidy cap.

As an interim measure, the WTO members at the Bali ministerial meeting in December 2013 had agreed to put in place a mechanism popularly called the Peace Clause and had committed to negotiating an agreement for permanent solution at the 11th ministerial meeting in Buenos Aires.

However, as no agreement was reached at MC 11, the Peace Clause will continue and also the existing mandate to find a permanent solution.

“… The existing mandates and decisions ensure that work will go forward and the members will continue to work on issues such as the permanent solution on public stockholding for food security purposes, agriculture Special Safeguard Mechanism and agriculture domestic support,” read India’s statement.

Decisions to set up a work program on fisheries subsidies and continue with the non-negotiating mandate of the existing work program on e-commerce were in line with the positions pursued by India at the conference.

Several developed countries wanted to bring the issue of e-commerce to the negotiating table, but India opposed it on the ground that WTO rules on this emerging sector would restrict the policy space necessary for promoting domestic players.

It was also decided to continue with the current practice of not imposing Customs duties on electronic transmissions for another two years till 2019.

On the other hand, no agreement was reached on new issues like investment facilitation, MSMEs, gender and trade in absence of consensus. India was against pushing new issues on the negotiating table as it would dilute the commitment to deal with the existing ones.

According to officials, the ministers could not arrive at an agreed ministerial declaration as a few of them did not support reiteration of “key underlying principles guiding WTO and various agreed mandates”.

India wanted explicit reference on commitment for completion of the Doha Development Agenda (DDA) and affirmation of faith in multilateralism. As some members did not agree to India’s submission, the ministerial declaration failed to pass the muster.

India, the statement said, “stood firm on its stand on the fundamental principles of the WTO including multilateralism, rule-based consensual decision-making, an independent and credible dispute resolution and appellate process, the centrality of development, which underlines the DDA and special and differential treatment for all developing countries”.-PTI

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