Speakers highlighted that the compounding effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine have increased food insecurity and caused food prices to skyrocket around the world.
Participants highlighted that export restrictions have become a particularly pressing issue for international agro-food trade transparency, as some countries have reacted to the current food crisis by imposing export restrictions on key foodstuffs like wheat.
Speakers emphasized the importance of transparency in how the WTO addresses food crises.
By Kensington Speer, Intern, CUTS International Geneva
A roundtable, organized by the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), and International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) as a part of IISD’s second Trade and Sustainability Hub discussed how World Trade Organization (WTO) rules can better prevent and mitigate food crises.
Convening during the WTO’s Twelfth Ministerial Conference (MC12), on 13 June 2022, the event sought to identify: agriculture negotiation areas that are most relevant for the food security of WTO members; gaps in the WTO agriculture negotiations that are a priority for the food security of WTO members; and opportunities for cooperation between the WTO and other international organizations to enhance the global food system’s resilience to crises.
Jonathan Hepburn, Counselor, WTO, moderated the session. Speakers discussed how WTO rules can prevent and mitigate food crises and the challenges the Organization faces in doing so.
Ranja Sengupta, Senior Researcher, Third World Network (TWN), stated that “all crises will have a food security face.”
Speakers highlighted that the compounding effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine have increased food insecurity and caused food prices to skyrocket around the world. They discussed issues such as transparency, export restrictions, and policy flexibility for developing countries within the WTO Agreement on Agriculture (AoA).
All speakers emphasized the importance of transparency in how the WTO addresses food crises. Sengupta highlighted that process issues at the WTO, like “green-room negotiations” that only include a select few members, contribute to an overall lack of policies addressing developing country needs. This practice, she said, damages transparency by excluding most WTO members, as well as civil society organizations (CSOs), from participating in and contributing to WTO negotiations.
Annelies Deuss, Agricultural Economist, Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, explained how transparency prevents and mitigates food crises by reducing market uncertainty, exposing bottlenecks, and highlighting risks of agricultural trade. She articulated how “transparency is not automatic” and requires investments in information gathering, policymaking, and communication to function properly. The WTO’s collaboration with other international organizations, she noted, can increase transparency, ensure monitoring, and reduce duplication of efforts supporting food security. Deuss provided information about short-term transparency tools to help members monitor and deal with the effects of agricultural trade policy, like Agricultural Market Information System (AMIS) Market Monitor, IFPRI’s food export restrictions tracker, Global Trade Alert, and the AMIS Policy Database.
Participants highlighted that export restrictions have become a particularly pressing issue for international agro-food trade transparency, as some countries have reacted to the current food crisis by imposing export restrictions on key foodstuffs like wheat. Valeria Piñeiro, Senior Research Coordinator, IFPRI, outlined problems with export restriction transparency in the WTO, including low rates of notification and late notifications that are primarily caused by “not a lack of capacity, but a lack of political will.” She mentioned the detrimental long-term consequences of export restrictions, and provided data on how developing countries suffer the most from export restrictions.
Sengupta agreed that countries should ideally eliminate export restrictions but recognized their effectiveness for developing countries as a temporary food security measure in times of crisis. Piñeiro suggested that long-term work on transparency allow developing countries to receive compensation for eliminating export restrictions.
Sengupta identified a lack of policy flexibility within the AoA framework as another obstacle facing developing countries, as it prevents implementation of food security measures tailored to the specific circumstances of a country. Sengupta, with Sophia Murphy, IATP Executive Director, argued that augmenting agro-food markets in developing countries can help stabilize the global markets.
Sengupta further stated that developing countries want to address deeper structural issues in the WTO and AoA in the future, instead of continuing to keep using short-term “band-aid solutions.”
Taking a broader look at WTO agro-food policy, Murphy explained how the AoA was “designed to be revised,” but this initial intent has not been followed through, which has left “fundamental gaps” in the AoA and limited the WTO’s trust building and rule enforcement roles. She argued that the WTO functions on the assumption that the state is the source of market distortion, failing to recognize how the market itself can distort agro-food trade.
In conclusion, Murphy emphasized that the WTO’s work intersects with human rights, climate adaptation, and international and domestic politics and interacts with food security policy beyond the AoA framework, like fossil fuel and fisheries subsidies. She highlighted that developed and developing countries face many similar underlying challenges related to food security that they could collaborate on, like rural poverty and exclusion.
IISD’s second Trade and Sustainability Hub convened online, from 13-15 June 2022. [IISD Knowledge Hub Sources]