Global food liberalisation central issue at WTO

By Anthony Fletcher

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: World trade organization, International trade

The suspended WTO farm talks featured in the organisation's
agriculture committee's meeting yesterday, with members' failure to
supply up-to-date information a source of frustration.

Chairperson Christian Haberli expressed his deep concern that several major agricultural trading members have not supplied important information for several years, particularly on their domestic support, information that is needed for use in the negotiations.

Data compiled up to 30 October 2006, and circulated in the meeting, showed that 70 members - almost half of the membership - still have not supplied some or all of the required information for 1995-2000 on their export subsidies, domestic support and market access measures.

Major players in the negotiations - Argentina, Canada, the EU, Rep. of Korea, Norway, Switzerland and the US - have not notified domestic support since 2001, and Japan not since 2002.

Haberli said this "creates an additional imbalance between delegations with substantial human resources available to seek information from other sources, and the small delegations that simply lack the means to obtain the information"​.

The negotiations were raised again briefly when the World Bank commented on how best to secure food supplies to the world's poor. This followed a warning from the FAO about the rising cost of food imports.

The World Bank said part of the solution lies in liberalisation, which could be undermined if the negotiations lead to too much flexibility through "sensitive products" and "special products" categories. The Philippines and Cuba objected and said they would raise the issue again at a future meeting after they have examined the statement.

The Doha Development Agenda, launched in November 2001, in the Qatari capital, Doha, aimed to free global trade by cutting industrial and agricultural tariffs and by reducing farm subsidies, with a special focus on achieving concrete benefits for developing countries.

But WTO members refused to budge on issues such as the lowering of tariffs on certain goods, during the final Doha round of WTO (World Trade Organisation) trade talks this summer. The talks have since been suspended.

The EU's expansion to 25, and in the future 27 states, was also discussed at the agriculture committee. Australia said the EU should not assume that the domestic support and export subsidy reduction commitments can be submitted unilaterally without negotiations with other WTO members.

Australia asked how the EU proposes to handle the further expansion to include Bulgaria and Romania.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) also warned that strengthening world prices, caused by tight supply and increasing demand, could raise food import bills by 7 per cent in 2006 for least-developed countries, and by almost 5 per cent for net food-importing developing countries.

Globally, the food import bill could rise by 2 per cent for all countries and by 3.5 per cent for all developing countries, indicating that the poorest countries will be the hardest hit.

"Agricultural trade liberalisation in particular can reduce poverty, not only by spurring growth, but by keeping the price of food staples of the poor at affordable levels,"​ said the World Bank.

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