To many, the recent WTO Ministerial Conference in Buenos Aires (MC11) was a disappointment because there was a deadlock over the Doha Development Round. There was a similar impasse after Nairobi (MC10). At least at that Ministerial Conference, however, countries had enough good will to agree to disagree over development – they issued a rare Ministerial Declaration that reflected the impasse. Whereas, at Buenos Aires, the US and 44 other countries blocked any possibility of a Ministerial Statement by claiming an aversion to the Doha Development Round. This obliterates any good will to negotiate at the WTO. By heightening disagreement, the US and its allies are trying to weaken the WTO and undermine developing countries’ gains made there. This may bring the political process to a halt.

Even though the Doha Development Round is an important political issue, if you allow it to define your understanding of WTO law and politics, you may lose sight of the lively aspects of agricultural negotiations. You would also undervalue the gains made by the G33 and African, Caribbean & Pacific Group of States (comprising a large number of import-sensitive developing countries).

But to understand what those gains are, you need some historical context. As I argue in my book, Sugar and the Making of International Trade Law, I think that that you cannot escape the question of agriculture – especially in terms of food security – whenever you discuss international trade law and politics. Here are some historical examples: The iconic moment in 1846 when the UK unilaterally repealed its Corn Laws and reduced its tariffs on grain (or ‘corn’ of the parlance of the time) was about the price of bread and the British government’s ability to import food and ensure that its people could get enough to eat. At the turn of the twentieth century, one of the first modern multilateral trade treaties was the Sugar Union created by the 1902 Brussels Convention. Within the League of Nations, wheat and sugar agreements were one the few successfully negotiated trade treaties. For forty years after WWII, the majority of the world’s national governments regularly negotiated and enacted international commodity agreements. And during the entire history of the GATT, there has always been some sort of active committee where delegates discussed and debated agricultural matters.

Focusing on agriculture, you can see that there have been some small but significant shifts in the recent trade political landscape. Ever since the 2013 Bali Ministerial, the G33 and its allies can claim a significant victory since they managed to put agriculture as a key item on the trade agenda in their own terms. The ensuing Bali Ministerial Decisions represents a new global consensus over what specific issues should be negotiated in the future. The Nairobi Package in 2015 continued some of the G33’s accomplishments in agriculture by maintaining an emphasis on food security and addressing topics such as export subsidies; special safeguard mechanisms for developing countries; and public stockholding for food security purposes.

Recent talks surrounding Buenos Aires have led to historically novel alliances with the EU trying to situate itself as a broker. Now that the EU is willing to negotiate, the G33 and the cause for food security still holds strong ground. Right before MC11, the (export-friendly) Cairns Group and the EU issued a joint statement suggesting that they are working more closely with each other. After MC11, the EU has also indicated that it was willing to discuss the issue of food security, if India was willing to engage on talks about e-commerce and fish subsidies. Well… there were some advances made on e-commerce and fish subsidies at Buenos Aires. If that momentum continues, we will see if the EU makes good on its promise.

Find out more in Michael Fakhri’s book, available here.

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