TWN Info Service on WTO and Trade Issues (Sept08/16)
30 September 2008
Third World Network

Trade: Agriculture work plan discussed at WTO meeting
Published in SUNS #6557 dated 29 September 2008

Geneva, 26 Sep (Martin Khor) -- An informal meeting on agriculture of about 25 heads of WTO delegations was informed of a future work schedule which will include a mixture of open and small group meetings that will culminate in a new draft of modalities.

The meeting, convened on 25 September by the Chair of the Doha agriculture negotiations, New Zealand's Ambassador Crawford Falconer, marked the beginning of a new phase of the Doha negotiations.

Following the failure of the mini-Ministerial meetings at the end of July, the WTO members have been exploring how to re-start the negotiations. There have been many uncertainties, especially those surrounding whether the United States administration is able to negotiate, given the impending Presidential elections and the suspension of work soon of the US Congress.

The ambition of finishing the Round by the end of this year has been dropped. Instead, the WTO Director General Pascal Lamy has announced a new target, that the modalities be settled by year-end.

Falconer's proposal to re-start the agriculture talks will provide the WTO members with a concrete programme of action. The return to the "multilateral process" also follows the failure of senior officials of the G7 to make progress on a small range of agriculture issues, including the special safeguard mechanism (SSM).

At the 25 September meeting, Falconer laid out a road-map of the process of negotiations for the next month or so. The talks will begin with an open-ended meeting (to which all members are invited) on 1 October. The meeting will start at 5.00 p. m. and is expected to be brief, to enable the Chair to announce the programme of work.

Another open-ended meeting is expected to be held shortly after, which will discuss substance.

This will be followed by meetings in small groups, known as "a walk in the woods", during which a few parties interested or involved in particular issues will meet with the Chair to explore if progress is possible.

Following this, or in parallel, there will be Room E meetings. Previously, these meetings were attended by about 35 delegations.

It is understood that the Chair will try to come up with a revised version of his draft modalities. The last agriculture draft was issued in early July. The negotiations will be based on this draft, and may presumably also refer to draft texts and ideas that emerged at various meetings during the July mini-Ministerial.

It is not known if there is a target date for the new draft. It will have to be before the end of this year, because Falconer is reported to be ending his term as Ambassador in December.

Though the talks will be resuming, real progress on key issues, especially on SSM and cotton, are expected to be extremely difficult, especially since key countries like the US and India are facing elections soon, thus constraining their ability to make compromises.

At a panel on agriculture at the WTO Forum yesterday, India's Ambassador, Ujal Singh Bhatia, reiterated that agriculture cannot be considered from a narrow commercial or market access perspective. There are billions of poor people who depend on agriculture for their livelihood, and there are food security issues that affect the world's population, he stressed.

"We are not talking about tinkering with one or two numbers here and there. We're talking about a whole philosophical approach to this issue and unless we find a solution which embraces all these concerns... I think we will not find a solution," Bhatia said, according to a Reuters report.

Meanwhile, Brazil's Foreign Minister, Celso Amorim, in the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session in New York, told reporters that the Doha Round may take an additional two or three years to be concluded if there is no breakthrough this year.

"If we can get to an agreement on modalities this year, the next US administration, whichever it is, will find something already done with the support of several countries -- and that would be harder to change," Amorim said.

He painted a disastrous scenario if this delay takes place. If we take longer, he said, the round will take an additional two or three years and, in the meantime, people will die of hunger in Africa, African cotton producers will keep facing large US subsidies, and India will not have the safeguard mechanism it wants to create. +