Much has been written about the challenges facing the World Trade Organization twenty-five years after its birth at the beginning of 1995.
The Appellate Body (“AB”) has ceased functioning with the United States blocking the appointment of new AB members based on longstanding problems with the Dispute Settlement system that have not been addressed. There are fundamental differences among major Members in what the proper role of the dispute settlement system is. Because the AB’s view of its role has differed from that of at least some of the Members, many delegations have opted to litigate instead of negotiate on issues which are not covered by the actual language of existing agreements.
The negotiating function of the WTO has had limited success in the first 25 years of the WTO reflecting deep differences among Members in priorities and the core function of the WTO. The inability to update rules or develop new rules to address 21st century commercial realities has called into question the ongoing relevance of the organization Members have failed to honor agreement directions for periodic liberalization updates in agriculture and services trade. Members have also taken decades to tackle issues of pressing time sensitivity, such as fisheries subsidies.
And there are problems in the timeliness and completeness of notifications required by many agreements and the quality of the work of many of the Committees.
A bright spot for an organization in trouble has been the success of bringing additional countries and territories into the organization. Of the 164 members at present, 36 have joined since the WTO opened in 1995 and some 23 countries or territories are in the accession process at the moment. Some 98% of global trade is now covered by WTO Members. While there are many reasons for countries or territories to join the WTO, including integrating into the global economy and improving the competitiveness of the economy (Deputy Director-General Alan Wolff describes the benefits of accession as being a catalyst for domestic reform and economic growth), there is no doubt that accessions are of benefit to the global trading system and bring the benefits of liberalization in the acceding country or territory to the existing WTO membership. Indeed, commitments of acceding Members in terms of tariff liberalization and other obligations typically are far higher than the commitments of existing Members at the same economic stage of development. Yet, accession is of great benefit to acceding countries. See WTO press release, 8 November 2020, DDG Wolff: WTO accession is a catalyst for domestic reform and economic growth, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/ddgaw_06nov20_e.htm. DDG Wolff, in speaking to Arab countries in the accession process made the following comments:
“Furthermore, during the last eight months, the world has experienced unprecedented levels of disruptions in people’s daily lives and their economic activities due to Covid-19. The world is not near the end of this crisis. Despite these challenging times, trade has played a key role in addressing local shortages of food, medical supplies and other essentials during the pandemic.
“Trade will have to play an even greater role in supporting recovery of the global economy going forward. In this context, we should recognise the important role played by Saudi Arabia in steering the G20 during this difficult year, urging collective and multilateral cooperation. The Riyadh Initiative is a praiseworthy effort endorsed by the G20 nations.
“The Arab region has not escaped the dire economic consequences of this pandemic. For some, the steep fall in oil prices has aggravated existing problems. A crisis, however, also presents opportunities for closer international cooperation to limit the harm from the pandemic and to spur the recovery.
“These issues demonstrate that more, not less, global and regional trade integration is required. Integration into the world economy goes hand in hand with necessary domestic reforms. This is where WTO accession makes particularly valuable contributions. Those engaged in the reform-driven accession process are likely to experience a quicker recovery and greater resilience in the future.
“Based on evidence from the 36 accessions which have been successfully completed, the WTO accession process has served as an effective external anchor for domestic reforms, acting as a catalyst in realizing the potential of their economies. According to the last WTO Director-General’s Annual Report on WTO Accessions, Article XII Members have registered higher growth rates of GDP and trade (exports and imports), as well as increased flows of inward FDI stocks, in the years following their accession compared to the rest of the world. These results indicate that integrated, open economies tend to grow faster. In addition, by signalling a government’s commitment to international rules, WTO membership appears to also encourage the inflow of foreign investment.
“The accession process has been used by resource-based countries to diversify their economies. Economic diversification is one of the major priorities for the governments in the Arab region. Our 2016 study examined whether countries’ export structures became more diversified after gaining WTO membership. This was true for about half of the recently acceded Members, which increased the number of exported products, measured in HS chapters, accounting for more than 60% of their exports after accession. This was achieved often through rebranding their economies with WTO membership and attracting increased FDI.”
From 1995-2016, the thirty-six countries or territories that joined the WTO included many of the major economies that were not original Members of the WTO. These included China, Chinese Taipei, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, Ukraine, and the Russian Federation. The other countries or territories who have joined represent a wide cross-section of geographic regions and levels of development: Ecuador, Bulgaria, Mongolia, Panama, Kyrgyz Republic, Latvia, Estonia, Jordan, Georgia, Albania, Oman, Croatia, Lithuania, Moldova, Armenia, North Macedonia, Nepal, Cambodia, Tonga, Cabo Verde, Montenegro, Samoa, Vanuatu, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Tajikistan, Yemen, Seychelles, Kazakhstan, Liberia, and Afghanistan. No accessions have been completed since 2016.
The twenty-three countries and territories that are in the process of accession often are countries or territories that have suffered from years of conflict. This has led the WTO to host the first “Trade for Peace Week” from November 30-December 4, 2020. See WTO press release, 25 November 2020, WTO to host first Trade for Peace Week, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/acc_25nov20_e.htm.
“In announcing the Trade for Peace Week, Deputy Director-General Alan Wolff noted: ‘The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development recognizes international trade as an engine for inclusive economic growth and poverty reduction that contributes to the promotion of sustainable development. This in turn can facilitate building and maintaining peace. The connection between trade and peace is the raison d’être for the creation of the rules-based multilateral trading system that led to economic recovery and prosperity after the devastation from World War II.’
“Currently, 23 countries are in the process of joining the WTO, and over a half of them suffer from a fragile situation from years of conflicts. Launched in 2017, the Trade for Peace initiative aims to assist fragile and conflict-affected (FCA) countries through WTO accession, with the emphasis on institution building based on the principles of non-discrimination, predictability, transparency and the rule of law. Based on experiences of former FAC countries, WTO accession can help set the conditions to move out of a state of fragility or conflict into a state of stability, economic well-being and peace.”
The twenty-three countries and territories in the process of accession include: Algeria, Andorra, Azerbaijan, Bahamas, Belarus, Bhutan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Comoros, Curacao, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Iran, Iraq, Lebanese Republic, Libya, Sao Tome and Principe, Serbia, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syrian Arab Republic, Timor-Leste, and Uzbekistan.
The genesis for the GATT and the other Bretton Woods institutions was a desire to provide an infrastructure and global rules to minimize the likelihood of future world wars. Cooperation, collaboration and integration would all reduce the likelihood of global conflict.
The WTO provides the opportunity for countries or territories struggling to escape violence to embark on a path of hope. That is a core mission of the WTO today just as it was for the GATT in the late 1940s.
Moreover, the record over the first twenty-five years of the WTO’s existence has been that those countries and territories who take the challenging steps to become Members of the WTO improve their economies and speed growth, development and foreign direct investment. Accessions also offer real improvements in market access for existing WTO Members. A true win-win situation.
For an organization struggling to maintain relevance amidst deep divisions among Members who seem to have lost the consensus on the core purpose of the organization, the pilgrimage of non-member countries and territories to join the organization is a beacon of hope. Serious reforms and updating of the rule book are desperately needed for a better functioning system where outcomes are based on underlying economic strengths and not the interference of governments. A willingness of Members to refocus on what the purpose of the WTO is in fact and to be supporters of contributing to the maximum of one’s ability will be key to forward movement. Inspiration can be drawn from the efforts of non-members to join.
In 2020 as the world has been dealing with the health and economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Trade Organization has focused attention on keeping markets open by urging Members to provide notifications of trade restrictive and trade liberalizing measures taken not just on medical goods but also on agricultural products. The G20 countries and various groups of WTO Members have made commitments to impose restrictions only under limited circumstances and only temporarily, consistent with WTO obligations. Some Members have urged countries to agree not to impose export restraints on agricultural goods to limit worsening challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic. On agricultural export restrictions, a number of countries have applied some restrictions despite information that global food supplies are sufficient which should make restrictions unnecessary. The attention paid to the issue by the WTO and its Members have limited the number of countries engaged in agricultural export restraints which is a positive development.
With the steps many countries have taken to limit the spread of the COVID-19, there has been enormous economic pain incurred by most countires, with tens of millions of people in countries temporarily unemployed, schools closed, food distribution disrupted with the closure of restaurants which constitute a large part of food shipped from processing plants and farms.
The UN, World Bank and others have projected huge increases in the number of people pushed into extreme poverty because of the effects flowing from the pandemic. Extreme poverty brings with it food security issues as people suffering extreme poverty don’t have the means to procure basic food needs.
The United Nation’s World Food Programme (WFP) has long been involved in helping address food security needs around the world. In the COVID-19 pandemic, the WFP is mobilizing to provide assistance to some 138 million people in 83 countries. With most countries occupied with dealing with the needs of their own populations, countries and private citizens have been slow to respond to the humanitarian challenges facing so many around the world. The WFP has appealed for US$4.9 billion to let them perform their stepped up function during COVID-19 through the end of 2020. As of August 6, they had received only 9 percent of what they need, $US440 million.
The WFP during the pandemic has been involved in facilitating services by many NGOs and international organizations. For example, “Over 16,500 health and humanitarian personnel from 288 organizations have now been transported to destinations throughout Africa, Asia, the Middle East and the Commonwealth of Independent States countries by WFP’s air passenger service since its launch on 1 May. 53 destinations are now being served, with approximately 2,500 passengers using WFP’s service per week.” WFP, COVID-19, Level 3 Emergency, External Situation Report #12 (6 August 2020)(emphasis in original). The latest situation report is embedded below and reviews the wide array of services provided as well a review of some of the countries with acute needs. It also provides a link to contribute to the WFP.
The External Situation Report indicates that there are 27 countries (based on an FAO-WFP hotspot analysis) which “are at risk of significant food security deterioration in the next six months”. (page 2). Countries at risk are Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Haiti, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Burkina Faso, Mali, the Niger, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Nigeria, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Lebanon, Sudan, South Sudan, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Somalia, Yemen, Ethiopia, Iraq, Syrian Arab Republic, Afghanistan and Bangladesh (total is 31, though Peru, Ecuador, Colombia appear to be at a lower level of risk based on coloration used on page 2). FAO – WFP early warning analsyis of acute food insecurity hotspots, https://docs.wfp.org/api/documents/WFP-0000117706/download/.
Where is the food aid?
For many countries, agricultural production has remained reasonably strong but large volumes of agricultural products have been destroyed based on lack of domestic markets, typically flowing from the collapse of the restaurant trade and the challenges in redirecting product, packaging and labeling into retail channels. See, e.g., New York Times, April 11, 2020, Dumped Milk, Smashed Eggs, Plowed Vegetables: Food Waste of the Pandemic, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/11/business/coronavirus-destroying-food.html.
It would seem that coordinated action by major agricultural goods producers in the WTO with the WFP and other groups should be able to provide large quantities of agricultural goods to those in need globally in the remaining months of 2020, goods which might otherwise simply be destroyed.
Similarly, while all countries are financially stretched during the pandemic, helping WFP obtain the needed financial resources to provide a coordinated pledging event should be of interest to WTO Members and many of the multilateral organizations working on COVID responses, as well as the business community and the general public.
While the WTO has grappled with limiting/eliminating export subsidies for agricultural goods, the WTO has always recognized the need to maintain the flow of humanitarian need particularly in agricultural goods. Consider these paragraphs from the 2015 Nairobi Ministerial Conference Decision on Export Competition (WT/MIN(15)45, WT/L/980 (21 Dec. 2015) at 6-7):
“International Food Aid
“22. Members reaffirm their commitment to maintain an adequate level of international food aid, to take account of the interests of food aid recipients and to ensure that the disciplines contained hereafter do not unintentionally impede the delivery of food aid provided to deal with emergency situations. To meet the objective of preventing or minimizing commercial displacement, Members shall ensure that international food aid is provided in full conformity with the disciplines specified in paragraphs 23 to 32, thereby contributing to the objective of preventing commercial displacement.
“23. Members shall ensure that all international food aid is:
“b. in fully grant form;
“c. not tied directly or indirectly to commercial exports of agricultural products or other goods and services;
“d. not linked to the market development objectives of donor Members; and that
“e. agricultural products provided as international food aid shall not be re-exported in any form, except where the agricultural products were not permitted entry into the recipient country, the agricultural products were determined inappropriate or no longer needed for the purpose for which they were received in the recipient country, or re-exportation is necessary for logistical reasons to expedite the provision of food aid for another country in an emergency situation. Any reexportation in accordance with this subparagraph shall be conducted in a manner that does not unduly impact established, functioning commercial markets of agricultural commodities in the countries to which the food aid is re-exported.
“24. The provision of food aid shall take into account local market conditions of the same or substitute products. Members shall refrain from providing in-kind international food aid in situations where this would be reasonably foreseen to cause an adverse effect on local13 or regional production of the same or substitute products. In addition, Members shall ensure that international food aid does not unduly impact established, functioning commercial markets of agricultural commodities.
“25. Where Members provide exclusively cash-based food aid, they are encouraged to continue to do so. Other Members are encouraged to provide cash-based or in-kind international food aid in emergency situations, protracted crises (as defined by the FAO14), or non-emergency development/capacity building food assistance environments where recipient countries or recognized international humanitarian/food entities, such as the United Nations, have requested food assistance.
“26. Members are also encouraged to seek to increasingly procure international food aid from local or regional sources to the extent possible, provided that the availability and prices of basic foodstuffs in these markets are not unduly compromised.
“27. Members shall monetize international food aid only where there is a demonstrable need for monetization for the purpose of transport and delivery of the food assistance, or the monetization of international food aid is used to redress short and/or long term food deficit requirements or insufficient agricultural production situations which give rise to chronic hunger and malnutrition in least-developed and net food-importing developing countries.15
“28. Local or regional market analysis shall be completed before monetization occurs for all monetized international food aid, including consideration of the recipient country’s nutritional needs, local United Nations Agencies’ market data and normal import and consumption levels of the commodity to be monetized, and consistent with Food Assistance Convention reporting. Independent third party commercial or non-profit entities will be employed to monetize in-kind international food aid to ensure open market competition for the sale of in-kind international food aid.
“29. In employing these independent third party commercial or non-profit entities for the purposes of the preceding paragraph, Members shall ensure that such entities minimize or eliminate disruptions to the local or regional markets, which may include impacts on production, when international food aid is monetized. They shall ensure that the sale of commodities for food assistance purposes is conducted in a transparent, competitive and open process and through a public tender.16
“30. Members commit to allowing maximum flexibility to provide for all types of international food aid in order to maintain needed levels while making efforts to move toward more untied cash-based international food aid in accordance with the Food Assistance Convention.
“31. Members recognize the role of government in decision-making on international food aid in their jurisdictions. Members recognize that the government of a recipient country of international food aid can opt out of the usage of monetized international food aid.
“32. Members agree to review the provisions on international food aid contained in the preceding paragraphs within the regular Committee on Agriculture monitoring of the implementation of the Marrakesh Ministerial Decision of April 1994 on Measures Concerning the Possible Negative Effects of the Reform Programme on Least-developed and net food-importing developing countries.
“13 The term ‘local’ may be understood to mean at the national or subnational level.
“14 FAO defines protracted crises as follows: ‘Protracted crises refer to situations in which a significant portion of a population is facing a heightened risk of death, disease, and breakdown of their livelihoods.’
“15 Belize, the Plurinational State of Bolivia, Ecuador, Fiji, Guatemala, Guyana, Nicaragua, Papua New Guinea and Suriname shall also have access to this provision.
“16 In the instance where it is not feasible to complete a sale through a public tender, a negotiated sale can be used.”
It is believed that the current WTO provisions on food aid should not pose hurdles to countries providing in kind aid where there are needed food products that can be exported during the pandemic. If that is not the case, then the WTO Members should agree to a temporary waiver of relevant restrictions to permit food aid during the pandemic.
There has been much discussion within the G20, WTO, WHO and other groups that collective action on the medical front is critical to see that medical goods, vaccines, are therapeutics are available equitably and at affordable prices. What one hasn’t seen is the same focus on ensuring that the world’ populations have access to food equitably and at affordable prices. During the pandemic, WTO Members have the opportunity to work together to see that food is not wasted and that food aid is supplemented to the extent possible to alleviate the unique challenges to food security presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.
With the global health crisis flowing from the COVID-19 pandemic ongoing, the world is also facing the specter of mass starvation flowing from a combination of ongoing armed conflicts, weather events, export restraints on food and potential disruptions in food supply. Export restraints and disruptions in food supply are increasing based on actions to address the COVID-19 pandemic.
Governments of the world are understandably focused on the health pandemic where known deaths since December are approaching 200,000 with confirmed cases over 2.5 million and continuing to increase. To date Europe and the United States and a few other countries account for the vast majority of confirmed cases and deaths from COVID-19, though nearly all countries have some cases and many other countries could see rapidly growing cases in the weeks and months ahead.
“Forgive me for speaking bluntly, but I’d like to lay out for you very clearly what the world is facing at this very moment. At the same time while dealing with a COVID-19 pandemic, we are also on the brink of a hunger pandemic.
“In my conversations with world leaders over the past many months, before the Coronavirus even became an issue, I was saying that 2020 would be facing the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II for a number of reasons.
“Such as the wars in Syria and Yemen. The deepening crises in places like South Sudan and, as Jan Egeland will no doubt set out, Burkina Faso and the Central Sahel region. The desert locust swarms in Africa, as Director General Qu highlighted in his remarks. And more frequent natural disasters and changing weather patterns. The economic crisis in Lebanon affecting millions of Syrian refugees. DRC, Sudan, Ethiopia. And the list goes on. We’re already facing a perfect storm.
“So today, with COVID-19, I want to stress that we are not only facing a global health pandemic but also a global humanitarian catastrophe. Millions of civilians living in conflict-scarred nations, including many women and children, face being pushed to the brink of starvation, with the spectre of famine a very real and dangerous possibility.
“This sounds truly shocking but let me give you the numbers: 821 million people go to bed hungry every night all over the world, chronically hungry, and as the new Global Report on Food Crises published today shows, there are a further 135 million people facing crisis levels of hunger or worse. That means 135 million people on earth are marching towards the brink of starvation. But now the World Food Programme analysis shows that, due to the Coronavirus, an additional 130 million people could be pushed to the brink of starvation by the end of 2020. That’s a total of 265 million people.
“On any given day now, WFP offers a lifeline to nearly 100 million people, up from about 80 million just a few years ago. This includes about 30 million people who literally depend on us to stay alive. If we can’t reach these people with the life-saving assistance they need, our analysis shows that 300,000 people could starve to death every single day over a three-month period. This does not include the increase of starvation due to COVID-19.
“In a worst-case scenario, we could be looking at famine in about three dozen countries, and in fact, in 10 of these countries we already have more than one million people per country who are on the verge of starvation. In many places, this human suffering is the heavy price of conflict.
“At WFP, we are proud that this Council made the historic decision to pass Resolution 2417 in May 2018. It was amazing to see the council come together. Now we have to live up to our pledge to protect the most vulnerable and act immediately to save lives.
“But this is only in my opinion only the first part of the strategy needed to protect conflict-riven countries from a hunger pandemic caused by the Coronavirus. There is also a real danger that more people could potentially die from the economic impact of COVID-19 than from the virus itself.
“This is why I am talking about a hunger pandemic. It is critical we come together as one united global community to defeat this disease, and protect the most vulnerable nations and communities from its potentially devastating effects.”
“Lockdowns and economic recession are expected to lead to a major loss of income among the working poor. Overseas remittances will also drop sharply – this will hurt countries such as Haiti, Nepal, and Somalia just a name a couple. The loss of tourism receipts will damage countries such as Ethiopia, where it accounts for 47% of total exports. The collapsing oil prices in lower-income countries like South Sudan will have an impact significantly, where oil accounts for 98.8% of total exports. And, of course, when donor countries’ revenues are down, how much impact will this have on life saving foreign aid.
“The economic and health impacts of COVID-19 are most worrisome for communities in countries across Africa as well as the Middle East, because the virus threatens further damage to the lives and livelihoods of people already put at risk by conflict.
“WFP and our partners are going all-out to help them we’ll do everything we possibly can. For example, we know that children are particularly vulnerable to hunger and malnutrition, so we are prioritizing assistance to them.
“Right now, as you may now 1.6 billion children and young people are currently out of school due to lockdown closures. Nearly 370 million children are missing out on nutritious school meals – you can only imagine when children don’t get the nutrition they need their immunity goes down. Where nutritious school meals have been suspended by school closures, we are working to replace them with take-home rations, wherever possible.
“As you know, WFP is the logistics backbone for the humanitarian world and even more so now for the global effort to beat this pandemic. We have delivered millions upon millions of personal protective equipment, testing kits and face masks to 78 countries on behalf of the World Health Organization. We are also running humanitarian air services to get frontline health professionals doctors, nurses, and humanitarian staff into countries that need help, especially while passenger air industry is basically about shut down.
“But we need to do so much more, and I urge this Council to lead the way. First and foremost, we need peace. As the Secretary-General recently said very clearly, a global ceasefire is essential.
“Second, we need all parties involved in conflicts to give us swift and unimpeded humanitarian access to all vulnerable communities, so they can get the assistance to them that they need, regardless of who they are or where they are. We also need in a very general sense humanitarian goods and commercial trade to continue flowing across borders, because they are the lifeline of global food systems as well as the global economy. Supply chains have to keep moving if we are going to overcome this pandemic and get food from where it is produced to where it is needed. It also means resisting the temptation to introduce export bans or import subsidies, which can lead to price hikes and almost always backfire.
“WFP is working hand in glove with governments to build and strengthen national safety nets. This is critical right now to ensure fair access to assistance and help maintain peace and prevent rising tensions among communities.
“Third, we need coordinated action to support life-saving humanitarian assistance. For example, WFP is implementing plans to preposition three months’ worth of food and cash to serve country operations identified as priorities. We are asking donors to accelerate the (US) $1.9 billion in funding that has already been pledged, so we can build stockpiles and create these life-saving buffers, and protect the most vulnerable from the effects of supply chain disruptions, commodity shortages, economic damage and lockdowns. You understand exactly what I’m talking about.
“We are also requesting a further USD350 million to set up a network of logistics hubs and transport systems to keep humanitarian supply chains moving around the world. They will also provide field hospitals and medical evacuations to the frontline humanitarian and health workers, as needed and strategically.
“Excellencies, two years ago the Security Council took a landmark step when it recognized, and condemned, the devastating human toll of conflict paid in poverty and hunger. Resolution 2417 also highlighted the need for early warning systems, and today I am here to raise that alarm.
“There are no famines yet. But I must warn you that if we don’t prepare and act now – to secure access, avoid funding shortfalls and disruptions to trade – we could be facing multiple famines of biblical proportions within a short few months.
“The actions we take will determine our success, or failure, in building sustainable food systems as the basis of stable and peaceful societies. The truth is, we do not have time on our side, so let’s act wisely – and let’s act fast. I do believe that with our expertise and partnerships, we can bring together the teams and the programs necessary to make certain the COVID-19 pandemic does not become a humanitarian and food crisis catastrophe. So Mr. President, thank you, thank you very much.
Fifty-six countries or territories are listed as at various levels of concern for hunger in 2019 and potentially for 2020 and are summarized on pages 214-215 of the report. Eleven of the fifty-six countries or territories are categorized as at a phase 4 level (emergency) for the country as a whole or for particular parts. These include Afghanistan, Angola, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Haiti, Nigeria, South Sudan, Sudan, Yemen, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. Twenty-one others are categorized as phase 3 (crisis). These include Burkino Faso, Cameron, Chad, Eswatini, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Honduras, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Mauritania, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Pakistan, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Uganada, and the United Republic of Tanzania. Eight countries or territories were ranked phase 2 (stressed). These included Cabo Verde, Cote d’Ivoire, El Salvador, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya and Nicaragua. Two countries or territories were listed as phase 1 (minimal)(Burundi and Rwanda). The remaining fourteen countries or territories had not been given a specific phase, some because the problem related to the presence of large numbers of refugees and what might happen during the year; for others the descriptions of the hunger challenges would suggest serious problems. These countries or territories include Bangladesh, Colombia, Djibouti, Ecuador, Iraq, Lebanon, Liberia, Libya, Myanmar, Palestine, Syrian Arab Republic, Turkey, Ukraine, and Venezuela.
While the bulk of the concerns raised in the report go to ongoing conflicts and weather problems, trade restrictions are potentially important contributors. As reviewed in an earlier post, a number of countries have imposed export restraints on certain agricultural goods. With the exception of Myanmar and Ukraine who are listed in the 2020 Global Report on Food Crises, the other countries reviewed in my earlier post are not included in the report. These countries include Russia, Kazakhstan, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Indonsia and Cambodia. The earlier post is linked below.
G20 Agriculture Ministers Communique
Following a virtual meeting on April 21, G20 Agriculture Ministers released a Ministerial Statement that reaffirmed “the importance of working to ensure the continued flow of food, products and inputs essential for agircultural and food production”. The Statement can be found here. https://g20.org/en/media/Documents/G20_Agriculture%20Ministers%20Meeting_Statement_EN.pdf. The statement covers a fair amount of ground but doesn’t prohibit export restraints per se in agriculture but rather repeats the limitations (reflecting existing WTO flexibilities) that trade ministers articulated for medical supplies – any restraints should be targeted, proportionate, transparent, and temporary. The full statement is reproduced below.
“We, the G20 Agriculture Ministers, are deeply saddened by the devastating human losses and suffering caused by the spread of COVID-19. We commit to cooperating closely and taking concrete actions to safeguard global food security and nutrition.
‘We reaffirm the importance of working to ensure the continued flow of food, products, and inputs essential for agricultural and food production across borders in line with our Leaders’ Statement on COVID-19 of March 26, 2020. We acknowledge the challenges of minimizing the risk of COVID-19 while keeping food supply chains functioning. We will continue to work to ensure the health, safety, welfare, and mobility of workers in agriculture and throughout the food supply chain.
“We will guard against any unjustified restrictive measures that could lead to excessive food price volatility in international markets and threaten the food security and nutrition of large proportions of the world population, especially the most vulnerable living in environments of low food security. We agree that emergency measures in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic must be targeted, proportionate, transparent, and temporary, and that they do not create unnecessary barriers to trade or disruption to global food supply chains, and are consistent with World Trade Organization (WTO) rules. We recognise the importance of transparency and commend the Trade and Investment Ministers’ commitment to notify the WTO of any trade-related measures taken, including those related to agriculture and essential foodstuffs. We reaffirm our agreement not to impose export restrictions or extraordinary taxes on food and agricultural products purchased for non-commercial humanitarian purposes by the World Food Programme (WFP) and other humanitarian agencies.
“We emphasize the work of the G20 Agricultural Market Information System (AMIS) and take note of AMIS’ assessment that at present global food supplies are adequate and food markets remain well balanced. As members, we commit and call on other members to continue providing timely and reliable information on global food market fundamentals to help markets, countries, and consumers make informed choices. Where appropriate, we will coordinate policy responses, supported by the AMIS Global Food Market Information Group and the AMIS Rapid Response Forum. We call for continued support for AMIS, including through voluntary financial contributions.
“We will work together to help ensure that sufficient, safe, affordable, and nutritious food continues to be available and accessible to all people, including the poorest, the most vulnerable, and displaced people in a timely, safe, and organized manner, consistent with national requirements. Acknowledging the critical role of the private sector in food systems, we call for enhanced cooperation between the public and private sectors to help mobilize rapid and innovative responses to impacts of this pandemic on the agriculture and food sectors.
“Under the current challenging circumstances, we stress the importance of avoiding food losses and waste caused by disruptions throughout food supply chains, which could exacerbate food insecurity and nutrition risks and economic loss. We stress the need to strengthen the sustainability and resilience of food systems globally, including to future shocks from disease and pest outbreaks, and to the global challenges that drive these shocks. In line with the One Health approach, we call for strengthened mechanisms for monitoring, early warning, preparedness, prevention, detection, response, and control of zoonotic diseases, and developing science-based international guidelines on stricter safety and hygienic measures for zoonosis control.
“We deeply thank farmers and workers, and small, medium and large scale agri-food businesses for their continuous efforts to ensure our food supply. We will intensify our efforts, in line with WTO rules and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, to support them to sustain their activities and livelihoods during the crisis and to assist their recovery afterwards. Our efforts will support rural communities, especially small-scale farmers and family farms, to be more economically prosperous, resilient and sustainable, and to have improved food security and nutrition, giving special attention to the needs of developing and low-income countries. We will continue our cooperation with relevant international organizations and within their mandates work to: reinforce international cooperation; identify additional actions to alleviate the impacts of COVID-19 on food security and nutrition; share best practices and lessons learned, such as addressing barriers to supply chains; promote evidence and science-based information and combat misinformation; provide capacity building and technical assistance; and promote research, responsible investments, innovations and reforms that will improve the sustainability and resilience of agriculture and food systems. This work could build on the Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO’s) evolving response to COVID-19, the International Fund for Agricultural Development’s (IFAD’s) evolving efforts to support a strong recovery from the effects of COVID-19, policy monitoring and analysis by the OECD, and other relevant initiatives, such as the preparation for the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit.
“We will continue our close cooperation and as necessary update our response to the COVID-19 pandemic and our broader G20 agriculture and food agenda. We stand ready to reconvene as required.” (Emphasis added)
The Ministerial Statement is helpful in encouraging nations to maintain open markets, to not tax humanitarian food aid and to provide transparency in actions taken. But the Ministerial Statement does not commit the G20 members to avoid trade restrictions where such restrictions are temporary, targeted, transparent and proportionate. Based on actions taken by China and India during the 2007-2008 food crisis, it is not surprising that the G20 could not get hard commitments to avoid agriculture export restrictions from all G20 members.
As international organizations are serving as transparency fora and are encouraging joint action, it is not surprising that the Ministerial Statement was warmly received by the WTO as the statement supports transparency and WTO consistency of any actions taken.. https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/dgra_21apr20_e.htm.
Communique from Various WTO Members
On July 22, twenty-three WTO Members (including the EU) submitted a joint statement to the WTO entitled RESPONDING TO THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC WITH OPEN AND PREDICTABLE TRADE IN AGRICULTURAL AND FOOD PRODUCTS, WT/GC/208, G/AG/30. The statement is embedded below.
The statement cautions countries to avoid actions to address the COVID-19 pandemic that would adversely affect trade in agricultural goods. Absent from the joint statement are important Members who have in the past used or who at present are using export restraints on certain agricultural products including China and India (past export restraints) and Russia, Kazakhstan, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, Myanmar and Cambodia (current export restraints).
The joint statement has strong language on keeping markets open (including the negative effects of export restrictions on agriculture and agri-food products), avoiding waste, maintaining effective transport and logistical services, the importance of transparency in actions taken as well as food production and stocks. Nonetheless, because of existing WTO flexibilities provided to Members, the commitments made by the 23 Members include one which maintains the right to emergency measures that are “targeted, proportionate, transparent and temporary, and not create unnecessary barriers to trade or disruption to global supply chains”.
The joint statement is certainly a positive step with eight specific commitments taken by WTO Members who account for 63% of global agricultural exports and 55% of global agricultural imports. Time will tell if the list of supporters of the commitments expands to other major Members.
Based on current and projected food supplies, there should be no crisis in food supplies to the world if there is collective efforts to keep markets open, provide food aid for populations experiencing severe shortages due to conflict, adverse weather events and any adverse effects from the COVID-19 pandemic. Much of what the UN and its World Food Programme seek (cease fires; access to people regardless of conflicts or sanctions) is not likely to happen based on actions by certain major countries. But keeping world markets open and food aid funded hopefully will occur. The consequences of failure in this regard would greatly exacerbate the health and economic costs already experienced from COVID-19.