WTO progress on agriculture ‘easily solvable’

BALI, Indonesia — Delegates from 159 World Trade Organization countries are debating a modest package of agricultural proposals this week that if approved would mark the first WTO progress in 12 years.

Some influential voices at the meeting argue it is the last chance for the WTO to salvage credibility as a forum for trade negotiations.

The ninth ministerial meeting began Dec. 3 and will end Dec. 6.

On Dec. 3, a senior WTO official warned that the organization will be damaged for years if member countries cannot approve this bundle of “low hanging fruit.”

It could also throw the future of the 12-year Doha Development Round negotiation into grave doubt.

WTO chief spokesperson Keith Rockwell told reporters a modest agricultural deal is possible and would add new life to the organization.

“The gaps are easily solvable,” he said. “We are close and if we can’t deliver here, it makes one wonder what we could deliver on.”

He said failure will lead countries to abandon WTO multilateral talks for increased bilateral and regional deals.

“Failure could leave us in the cold for years to come.”

Indonesian trade minister Gita Wirjawan, co-chair of the meeting and speaking for a coalition of poor countries, insisted it is possible “to achieve something in the next four days if we pray hard and work hard. We must be cognizant of coming out of Bali with some sense of achievement when we haven’t accomplished much in the past 12 years.”

The proposals hammered out during months of negotiations include a requirement that countries actually import the levels of low-tariff agricultural products they have committed to through tariff rate quotas.

They also include a commitment that export subsidies will be eliminated, although without a timetable, and measures to help poor countries pursue food security.

To underline how modest the package is, Australian John Adank, chair of the WTO agriculture negotiating committee, said approving the package would not lead to immediate change.

“You won’t have necessarily dealt with them in a conclusive way,” he said in an interview. “But if ministers are prepared to endorse what’s on the table, we can then move on and build on those agreements for the future. It would be progress.”

However, there is no guarantee that members will heed the call to do something to give the organization credibility.

The WTO operates on consensus, it takes only one of the 159 countries to veto a deal.

Canadian agriculture minister Gerry Ritz, who was at the talks with trade minister Ed Fast, remained skeptical of a deal.

Even if one was reached, he added, he doubted that it would inject much life into the WTO negotiation launched in 2001 and stuck in neutral since.

“When you haven’t had any solid movement in the WTO — the last outlines were 2005 and 2008 — it’s very difficult for me to say that three days are going to make a difference,” he said.

“It’s good to get everyone under one roof, but the more people talk, the more ideas change. To capture all that (in an agreement), you’re herding cats.”

If all delegations were to hold their noses and agree to a package, it would mark a break from the WTO tradition of not signing a final deal until everything is agreed.

The lack of progress in the last eight years effectively scuttled a 2005 agreement in Hong Kong to phase out export subsides by this year.

If approved, the part of the agreement that could most affect Canada is the proposal to force countries to live up to their TRQ access deals.

Canada has long complained that Europe offers meat access through a TRQ but never fills the quota.

Adnack said the proposal would allow countries to go to the WTO with a complaint if less than two-thirds of the TRQ commitment is filled after several years.

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