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  • Writer's pictureDivyashree S. & Ashwin V.

Tilling the Soil: Food Security at the WTO MC12

Food insecurity and health-related issues have been of utmost concern to international organisations and countries around the world. These issues were aggravated considerably in early 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted supply chains, which made is even tougher for people and countries to access essential food supplies and water. The Ukraine-Russia War has further disrupted international trade, resulting in high inflation of costs around the world—thereby further adding to the deepening food insecurity situation, especially for developed and least-developed countries.

It is in this backdrop that the 12th Ministerial Conference (“MC12”) of the World Trade Organisation (“WTO”) decided to tackle the problem of food insecurity around the world.

Question: What is food security?

Answer: Food security is the physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food. Such food should be in accordance with food preferences and dietary needs of each individual across the world, irrespective of class, gender, region, country, etc.

Question: How can WTO help attain food security?

Answer: Since WTO governs trade of agriculture and food, it can ensure availability of food across borders. Agreements such as the Agreement on Agriculture, Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (“SPS Agreement”), Technical Barriers to Trade Agreement and the Trade Facilitation Agreement are key instruments in ensuring food security.

Question: What are the important decisions taken by the WTO in the past to ensure a balance between food security and free trade?

Answer: Following are some landmark decisions which strike a balance between food security and free trade:

Public Stockholding: Public stockholding programmes are government programmes wherein governments “purchase, stockpile and distribute food to people in need.” Public stockholding programmes are considered to distort trade when these purchases are made by the government are fixed prices. In 2013, Members temporarily agreed to not challenge a developing country’s public stockholding programme legally, as long as the programme did not violate the domestic support limit under the Agreement on Agriculture. No permanent solution has been found yet.

Export Subsidies: In 2015, the WTO Members decided to eliminate the use of export subsidies and other measures for agricultural products. An exception was carved out for developing countries and Least Developed Countries (“LDCs”).

Decision on Measures Concerning the Negative Effects of the Reform Programme on Least Developed and Net Food-Importing Countries: In 1994, Members agreed to review the level of food aid, to give full consideration to requests for the provision of technical and financial assistance to least developed and net food-importing developing countries to improve their agricultural productivity and infrastructure, and to ensure that any agreement relating to agricultural export credits provided for differential treatment in favour of least developed and net food-importing developing countries (“NFIDC”).

Discussions on Export Restrictions and Prohibitions: Article 12 of the Agreement on Agriculture read with Article XI.2(a) of the GATT allows for export prohibitions and restrictions in situations of critical shortages, provided the Member imposing such restrictions (a) gives due consideration to the effects of such measure on food security, and (b) notify the WTO Membership of such measures. Developing countries are exempted from the two requirements as long as they are not a net-food exporter of the foodstuff concerned. Countries are increasingly seeking enhanced transparency on the imposition of such measures.

Food Safety: The SPS Agreement allows for Members to ensure food safety while also not establishing barriers to free trade.

Question: What are the decisions taken by the WTO during the MC12 in the interest of food security?

Answer: There are three important outcomes of the MC12 for the purposes of food security and safety:

The Ministerial Decision on World Food Programme Food Purchases Exemption from Export Prohibitions or Restrictions: The Members decided to not impose export prohibitions or restrictions on foodstuffs purchased for non-commercial humanitarian purposes by the World Food Programme. This is in line with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal No. 2, i.e., the achievement of food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.

The Ministerial Declaration on the Emergency Response to Food Insecurity: The LDC groups proposed (i) the establishment of a work programme to ensure the implementation of the Ministerial Decision on Measures Concerning the Negative Effects of the Reform Programme on Least Developed and Net Food-Importing Countries, (ii) an agreement to refrain from challenging the compliance of the NFIDCs and LDCs with their obligations under the Agreement on Agriculture, in respect of certain trade-distorting practices. While a commitment was made to establish the Work Programme, there was no explicit agreement on refraining from taking legal action.

The Declaration on Responses to Modern SPS Challenges: This declaration was made in light of the 25th anniversary of the SPS Agreement. The MC12 noted that there are several challenges which the SPS Agreement will have to face in the coming years, especially those relating to increasing global population, the increased pace of innovation in tools and technologies, growing importance of sustainable agricultural practices and production systems, shifting pressures due to the spread of pests, diseases, disease-carrying organisms, or disease-causing organisms, increasing threat of antimicrobial resistance for human and animal health, and the application of the SPS Agreement as a disguised restriction on international trade. To this end, the declaration instructed the Committee on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (“SPS Committee”) to work on the enhancement of the SPS Agreement’s implementation in order to better manage the problems identified above. The declaration also identified several themes which could constitute the mandate of the SPS Committee, include those relating to the facilitation of global food security and more sustainable food systems, the basing of SPS measures on scientific evidence and principles, enhanced and safe international trade in food, animals and plants (and the products thereof), and the increase in participation of and support for the special needs of developing and LDCs Members in the development and application of SPS measures.

Question: Did the MC12 reach a permanent solution for Public Stockholding Programmes?

Answer: No.

A proposal on this account [WT/MIN(22)/W/4, dated June 6, 2022], among other things, urged the “use of public stockholding for food security purposes by developing country Members.” The Members additionally proposed certain amendments to the Agreement on Agriculture in respect of what domestic measure supports can be undertaken by developing country Members, and also in respect of aggregate measurement of support (i.e., monetary support provided to agricultural producers in a country) limits under the said agreement.

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