DDG Wolff: WTO Needs a More Robust Agricultural Rule Book



Ambassador Alan Wolff | WTO

Good afternoon.

It is a pleasure for me to provide opening remarks for this, the first episode after the summer break of the WTO Trade Dialogues on Food: “Food Trade Policy, the G20, and COVID-19”.

This episode is an opportunity for us to take stock of the global food market situation, and of the obstacles that still stand in the way of agricultural trade.

COVID-19 certainly has been a cause of serious concern for more than one reason. It threatened to become not only a health and economic crisis, but some thought that it might become a food crisis too.

It did not because the WTO, the FAO and others made it clear that global supply of cereals was robust, and, along with the G20 called for both transparency and restraint in imposing export restrictions. International organizations cannot control individual member decisions, but they can make sure that national policy makers have full information on which to make their decisions.

The WTO Agreement on Agriculture is the only existing global accord that governs worldwide agricultural trade. Given that international trade feeds one in every six people around the globe, we must continually monitor the implementation of the Agriculture Agreement and seek to improve upon its disciplines so as to ensure the robust growth of trade in food and other agricultural products.

Last week, the WTO held a meeting of its Committee on Agriculture; the body that oversees the implementation of the Agreement.

Seeing the Committee on Agriculture in action last week was, as always, extraordinary. The WTO’s 164 members grilled each other on all sorts of policies — old and new — with an impact on agricultural trade. Hundreds of probing questions were posed, with agricultural attachés spending hours giving responses.

This is an international exercise in accountability; and a fine example of how to manage globalization and to ensure that it remains in the interest of all.

Many of the questions posed last week were directly related to COVID-19. For example:

  • Some centered on the new border measures enacted by countries to prevent the spread of COVID-19; such as new testing and packaging requirements for imported foods. Those posing the questions wanted to better understand the justification for these measures.
  • Other questions had to do with the new types of subsidies for farmers (or state aid programs) that have proliferated in the wake of COVID-19. Or the transportation subsidies that have kicked-in to reduce the cost of food exports during the pandemic. Members wanted certainty that the assistance would be temporary, and non-trade distorting.

But there were hundreds upon hundreds of non-COVID related questions too. Such as questions on the UK’s new border controls on food during the Brexit transition, or questions on recently concluded bilateral or regional trade agreements and their consequences for third parties.

The meeting was incredibly rich in content, which demonstrates not only the need for the WTO as administrator of trade agreements, but the WTO as a place for a full exchange of both views and hard information necessary for decision-making in capitals.

Last week also saw a negotiating session among WTO members on the strengthening of the Agreement on Agriculture. In WTO jargon, this was a meeting of the Committee on Agriculture in Special Session (i.e. in negotiating mode).

These discussions have been ongoing for a number of years with the view to enhancing transparency and predictability as well as providing a level playing field through new disciplines for international trade in agriculture. It is imperative that progress be made in these negotiations, so as to ensure the continued relevance of the Agreement to food and agriculture trade.

While COVID-19’s worst case scenarios for food trade did not happen, ultimately, what we need is a more robust WTO agricultural rule-book. One that can better ensure that markets remain open, in particular in challenging times. This means making serious and permanent reductions to agricultural tariffs, reducing trade-distorting domestic support, and better regulating food export restrictions.

COVID-19 was a wakeup call. We cannot allow our global food supply to become unpredictable at times of crisis. We must bullet-proof the WTO Agreement on Agriculture so that we do not have to worry again.

I very much look forward to hearing the views that will be expressed in this webinar.

Ambassador Alan Wolff began his four-year term as WTO Deputy Director-General on 1 October 2017. Formerly Senior Counsel at the global law firm Dentons, he is one of the world’s leading international trade lawyers. He has been engaged to resolve some of the largest international trade disputes on record. For the last six years, he has served as the Chairman of the National Foreign Trade Council (NFTC) which today represents hundreds of American companies who employ millions of workers. He is Chairman of the Board of the Institute for Trade and Commercial Diplomacy (ITCD).

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