International food trade rules unlikely to change at WTO meeting

The World Trade Organization heads into a December ministerial meeting in Bali, Indonesia, with modest agricultural expectations, projecting no major breakthroughs in new international food trade rules.

WTO agriculture committee chair John Adank, ambassador from New Zealand, told a recent committee meeting in Geneva that firming up rules to limit use of export subsidies is one possible area of progress.

Delegates to a WTO ministerial meeting in Hong Kong eight years ago agreed to end agricultural export subsidies by 2013.

However, there was no overall agreement on an agricultural text at the Hong Kong meeting so the commitment was sidelined.

Eight years later, subsidized exports remain an issue in food trade. There have been recent examples of countries, including the United States with sugar products, planning to ship subsidized product into export markets.

Adank said during his address to the agriculture committee that there is broad agreement on the need to act but less agreement on how.

“On export competition, my sense is that the recent discussions have helped us to move forward to identify what could be the various elements of a possible Bali outcome in this area,” he said.

However, even a deal to implement the 2005 agreement is far from certain.

“While we can see convergence emerging around some of these elements, it is fair to say that a number of issues still remain far from agreed,” he said.

Adank called for at least a declaration from the Bali conference that “export subsidies in all forms are a highly trade-distorting form of support.”

Other issues to be discussed include a proposal from developing countries that they be allowed to exceed limits on domestic subsidies if the money is used to buy food for national stockpiles and agreement on how to manage imports allowed under tariff rate quota trade rules that are not trade distorting.

For some observers of the WTO process, a failure to make any progress on agriculture after 12 years of Doha Round negotiations will signal the failure of the WTO process.

The trade objectives agreed to in 2001 have largely been bypassed, and regional trade deals are becoming more prominent.

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