Is The Bali package a new dawn for agriculture at the WTO?

Following the WTO Bali Ministerial in the media or through some of the world leaders’ reactions, one could think that this meeting marks a new dawn for multilateral trade negotiations. However, when looking at the actual content, as well as the dynamics of the talks, it is hard to pretend that Bali was anything else than a business as usual moment, spinned as a revival of multilateral trade negotiations, particularly when it comes to agriculture.

No change of approach in Bali:

It is much easier to save the multilateral trade system, as supposedly happened in Bali, when you don’t have to make any concessions in the process. And that’s exactly what Developed countries were able to do. They got the Trade Facilitation agreement they have been lobbying for since the beginning of the Doha Round, without having to trade off anything substantial. They only gave India a temporary peace clause to protect their food security act from WTO challenges, and they will certainly extract further concessions down the road to agree to the permanent solution India and other developing countries need. Other than this, the Bali package is only paying lip service to LDCs needs. We are still waiting for a WTO package that truly addresses the needs of its poorer members and include actual concessions from its richer members.

What was (and will be) at stake?

While most of the attention has focused on India vs. US in Bali, this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the relevance of these talks for food security in developing countries.
Indeed, the broader question is whether WTO rules on agriculture, which were crafted decades ago, will stand in the way of food security policies in developing countries. The reality is that a lot of the policy instruments needed to support small holder agriculture and consumers access to food are potentially in contradiction with existing trade rules. This issue was not resolved in Bali and should be at the forefront of trade negotiators agenda going forward.

WTO talks on agriculture are still hostage of unfair and outdated rules:

In that context, one should not forget that the WTO Agreement on Agriculture was crafted by developed countries in the 1980s and 1990s to meet their own policy needs, namely allowing them to subsidise export oriented agriculture models. It is thus particularly ironic that the very same country that has been so protective of its ability to use the loopholes in WTO rules to dump food on foreign markets is now leading a charge against the potential trade distorting impact of India’s Food Security Act.

Systemic solutions are still needed:

The Bali decision on public stockholding for food security purposes basically gives some breathing space to negotiators to find a systemic solution, while ensuring India and other developing countries won’t be challenged at the WTO in the meantime- though there are doubts about the strength of the decision on that particular front. In addition, it seems the decision only protects existing food security programs from such challenges. And finally, there are some heavy transparency and reporting requirements for countries who want to benefit from that temporary peace clause.
Ultimately, Bali was only about the length and the details of this temporary solution and did little to advance the discussions on the systemic changes that are needed.

Looking forward:

Still, the Bali Ministerial declaration empowers Geneva based negotiators to come up with a negotiating work plan before the end of 2014. There has been little if any discussion about what to do next, now that the WTO negotiating function is alive and kicking. As already articulated by a number of organisations and UN representatives, negotiators could do much worse than looking at the needs of poor and vulnerable populations in a context of high and volatile food prices. There is a movement in developing countries to right to the wrongs of the last 30 years and implement ambitious food security laws, enshrine the Right to Food in the constitution or national law or to ensure past commitments to invest in small holder agriculture are being met. The very least the WTO could do is to ensure that outdated trade rules do not stand in the way of such efforts. The good news is that there is no need to re-invent the wheel. A lot of the issues at stake have been discussed already in the Doha Round context. Focusing on them could be a real game changer for developing countries.

By Romain Benicchio