Stakeholders push for increased transparency on COVID-19 measures in farm trade

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At a meeting of the Committee on Agriculture on 28 July, members of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) posed a record number of questions about each other’s farm measures.

Australia and other members called for enhanced transparency on COVID-19 measures. In the subsequent information session dedicated to COVID-19, members heard from several international organizations about their research work. India was queried about its subsidies for rice in 2018-19.

At the end of the meeting, Ms Maria Escandor (the Philippines) was elected as the new chair of the Committee.

A total of 308 questions were submitted by WTO members since the last Committee meeting in 2019. The March 2020 meeting was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

To ensure an effective discussion, the one-day meeting focused on a WTO Secretariat document compiling 146 unanswered questions regarding members’ farm policies. Written responses received in advance of the meeting were compiled in a document for members’ reference.  These responses can also be found in the WTO’s Agriculture Information Management System.

US, EU, China respond to questions

The United States addressed members’ concerns over “Phase 1” of the US-China trade deal and over farm stimulus packages, including the package adopted in response to COVID-19. The US noted that, in the US-China Economic and Trade Agreement, China committed to ensure that purchases and imports into China of agricultural and seafood products from the United States would exceed the corresponding 2017 baseline amount by US$ 12.5 billion in 2020 and by US$ 19.5 billion in 2021. “Purchases will be made at market prices based on commercial considerations and market conditions may dictate the timing of purchases within any given year,” the United States reiterated.

The US provided the value of 2017 exports to China based on U.S. Census Data for several main commodities. The US said both parties are not disclosing further disaggregated information “to avoid speculative behaviour in commodity markets”, and that market rules will prevail: “Chinese buyers can choose specific products and vendors, time purchases, and negotiate prices according to current market conditions.” The US also maintained there would be no market distortion or discrimination since “the Agreement neither restricts China from purchasing food, agricultural, and seafood products from other countries nor discriminates against these products”.

Regarding COVID-19 stimulus packages, the United States said updated information can be found in its new submission: US ad hoc report on COVID-19 measures (G/AG/GEN/161). It encompasses key information (designated agency, short description of the programme, weblink and the legal reference for actions) for 11 programmes. These include nine US Department of Agriculture projects, such as the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program and USDA Farmers to Families Food Box, as well as two targeted support plans for small business. The US said this special submission is without prejudice to its normal notifications and will be updated over time. It encouraged all members to make their own ad hoc reports on COVID-19 measures.

China’s responses regarding the US-China trade deal were in line with what was said by the United States. It said that “commercial considerations” is the principle agreed upon by both parties. “Chinese enterprises engaged in imports from the US will follow the principle of market and the WTO rules … the Chinese government does not make any instructions (on the purchases),” it asserted. Regarding its agricultural insurance programmes, China said it is still processing the questions and will provide responses when they are available.

The EU’s multiple environmental policies were the subject of discussion. These policies include the new “Farm to Fork” Strategy issued on 17 February 2020 — a set of regulations to reduce the use of chemical pesticides, fertilizers and antibiotics in agri-food production; the European Green Deal — an ambitious plan to transform the EU into a carbon-free economy by 2050; and the EU’s production subsidies resulting from the implementation of sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) measures.

The EU said the Common Agricultural Policy reform and related Farm to Fork proposals are still being discussed by the EU’s co-legislators, the European Council and the European Parliament. Therefore, details are not yet available, and no formal decision has been taken to introduce a carbon tax at present. The relevant notifications in relation to the pesticide standards fall within the scope of the WTO’s SPS Committee and Technical Barriers to Trade Committee, it said. Regarding the questions on its COVID-19 measures, the EU referred members to its ad hoc report  and said “more information will be added once it becomes available.”

Call for increased transparency on farm measures related to COVID-19

Some members informed the Committee about their recent ad hoc reports on COVID-19 related agricultural measures issued in the G/AG/GEN/ series.

Australia introduced a room document co-sponsored by Brazil, Canada, New Zealand and Paraguay. Floating a set of questions as food for thought, Australia invited members to brainstorm on how the Committee can ramp up monitoring on members’ COVID-19 agriculture measures. It suggested an approach combining efforts by members and the WTO Secretariat and encouraged members to submit additional notifications. It also noted the option, in the meantime, of improving capacity-building for members in need. “Through normal notifications, we may wait for years (to see those COVID-19 measures). Greater support measures should make the procedure easier,” it said. Australia also indicated that it has led by example and submitted its own ad hoc report of COVID-19 measures.

Co-sponsors indicated they have provided, or intended to submit, ad hoc reports of COVID-19 measures. They stressed the need to track these measures in quickly changing times. One member said this should be a truly member-driven process. The Secretariat plays an important role but informing the WTO of their trade measures falls under the purview of the members, it said. Some members pointed out that domestic support in agriculture provided in response to the pandemic is an area in need of updated information. A point was made that big economies have bigger responsibilities in this regard.

Many members took the floor and commended the proponents on the initiative. One developed member asked all the co-sponsors to “walk the talk” and submit ad hoc reports of their COVID-19 measures, while urging all big and emerging economies to follow suit. It also suggested listing on the meeting agenda all members that have submitted ad hoc reports. One developed member agreed that regular notifications are not enough, and suggested members submit ad hoc reports as it had done.

Meanwhile, differences remain on approaches to achieve the common goal of transparency. One developing member pitched a “pragmatic approach” on the ad hoc reports: due to the emergency nature of many measures, the WTO should allow members to notify in any format that suits them best. One member asked to take into consideration members’ different capacities and believed there is no need to duplicate the monitoring work currently done by the Secretariat. One member argued that the priority of the Committee work should be on the removal of import and export restrictions and freeing up the global supply chain.

Some members cautioned that the exercise of ad hoc reporting should not become a policing mechanism, arguing that members — especially developing country members — needed the necessary policy space to respond appropriately to the impact of the pandemic. Another member also warned that they should not be penalized for actively and voluntarily participating in this transparency exercise.

Australia thanked all the speakers and concluded that flexibility, consistency and coherence will be the guiding principle for improving transparency on COVID-19 measures.

Source: Laudbusiness.com/Ghana

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