As several countries initially responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by restricting food exports, concerns mounted over poor consumers in net food-importing countries facing difficulties in accessing food.
Proponents of Singapore’s proposal to exempt from export restrictions food bought for humanitarian purposes say the move will make it faster and easier for the World Food Program to provide urgently-needed assistance to save the lives of people in crisis situations – and ensure that trade rules support progress towards SDG 2 (zero hunger).
Negotiators at the World Trade Organization (WTO) are considering a proposal from Singapore that would ensure humanitarian food aid is exempt from export prohibitions and restrictions, ahead of the trade body’s General Council meeting on 16 December.
Proponents say the move will make it faster and easier for the World Food Program (WFP) to provide urgently-needed assistance to save the lives of people in crisis situations – and ensure that trade rules support progress towards SDG 2, which commits governments to ending hunger and malnutrition.
The move follows a declaration by agriculture ministers from the Group of 20 (G20) on 21 April, reaffirming their agreement to exempt from export restrictions food bought for humanitarian purposes by the WFP.
After a wave of food price spikes in the late 2000s, G20 leaders made a similar statement at their Cannes summit in November 2011 – although disagreement among WTO members prevented the trade body adopting an agreement on the issue at its ministerial conference in Geneva one month later.
This year, the issue has again risen up the trade agenda as several countries initially responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by restricting food exports, raising concern that poor consumers in net food-importing countries would face difficulties in accessing food. Although many such measures have since been lifted, WFP staff told an informal WTO meeting on 10 November that the organization had faced difficulties procuring humanitarian aid in the new market and policy environment.
With the WFP now set to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of its work to combat hunger, especially in conflict-affected areas, trade officials acknowledged that there was increased awareness of the agency’s work, and a stronger determination among WTO members to support it. “It would be a good moment for the WTO to deliver”, one developing country trade official told IISD.
Around 30 countries would be willing to co-sponsor Singapore’s initiative, which would take the form of a General Council decision, trade sources told IISD. Furthermore, as many as 50 members are believed to have expressed support for the move. Countries in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and the Pacific are among those co-sponsoring the proposal, including those which are recipients of food aid.
Support is also spread across different world regions and negotiating coalitions, including both exporting and importing countries, and those classed as developed, developing, and least developed countries (LDCs) at the WTO.
On 23 November, a virtual ministerial meeting of the cross-regional Ottawa Group of trade ministers discussed the proposal and “agreed to encourage” its adoption by the wider WTO membership, according to a press release issued after the event. The meeting was convened by Canada’s Minister of Small Business, Export Promotion and International Trade, Mary Ng.
Sources told IISD that the EU is also consulting internally on the proposal, while the US has spoken in support of the move, and China voiced cautious support. The LDCs are reportedly also in favor, along with the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group, although some countries in the group are seeking to address the concern that food aid procurement could exacerbate domestic shortages. India is the only WTO member to express objections to the proposal in its current form, trade officials said.
However, negotiators said some countries’ concerns may have been allayed by the WFP’s presentation for WTO members, which emphasized the agency’s “do no harm” principle underlying its procurement policy. WFP Chief Economist Arif Husain outlined the steps the organization took to support food security through its food purchases, as well as describing the obstacles which food export restrictions create for the safe, timely, and efficient delivery of humanitarian aid.
Both rice and maize procurement had both been affected by export restrictions, Husain said. In the case of maize, procurement costs were higher, and deliveries took two to three times longer, resulting in the loss of at least 3.9 million meals. In the case of rice, food aid to West Africa was delayed by at least one month, and rice procurement prices rose by 20 percent.
WFP Executive Director David Beasley has also spoken out in support of the initiative, telling a meeting of the agency’s Executive Board in November that the proposal “will help us save both money and time in reaching the most destitute.” He asked Board members to urge their governments to support the exemption.
The topic of export restrictions is one of seven issues on the agenda of the WTO agriculture committee’s negotiating body. Members are also discussing: domestic support to the farm sector; the issue of public food stockholding; market access issues, such as tariffs and other border measures; a “special safeguard mechanism” for developing countries; export competition, including export subsidies and comparable measures; and cotton.
The chair of the WTO agriculture negotiations, Costa Rica’s Ambassador Gloria Abraham Peralta, has asked facilitators to support her efforts to identify potential areas of consensus on the seven negotiating issues. Leonardo Rocha Bento (Brazil) is facilitating the talks on export restrictions, and, alongside other facilitators, reported back on his discussions to date at the 10 November meeting.
Most members consider there is positive momentum towards a General Council, Rocha Bento told the meeting. However, there was less consensus around a separate question concerning how governments could best improve transparency when food export restrictions are imposed.
Prospects for progress
Rocha Bento is due to convene an informal meeting open to all WTO members on 26 November to hear their views on the issue and discuss possible ways forward.
Progress on WTO agriculture negotiations has been slowed by the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak, negotiators said, with the postponement of the next WTO ministerial conference one factor affecting the dynamic in the talks. The transition to a new administration in the US and the delay in concluding the selection process for the new WTO Director-General have also affected the mood among members and the political context for the negotiations.
However, trade officials were at pains to emphasize that WFP food aid represents only a tiny fraction of total global trade in food – and that humanitarian principles, rather than traditional trade issues, were at stake. “We’re just trying to help WFP to do its life-saving work”, one supporter of the proposal told IISD.
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This policy brief was written by Jonathan Hepburn, Senior Policy Advisor, IISD.