The Agreement on Agriculture negotiated in the Uruguay Round was expected to bring about a structural change in the global agricultural trade and lead to efficient agricultural producers.
Yet despite several further rounds of negotiations there has been minimal progress on all issues related to the Agreement and agricultural trade continues to be distorted. Given the prevalence of these distortions and the importance of agriculture to developing countries, the need to create a framework to tackle agricultural trade issues is stronger than ever.
Both developed and emerging economies have been accused of protectionism. Developed countries often heavily subsidize their farmers, while developing countries often impose high import restrictions that inhibit free trade.
Developing countries are advocating two instruments to defend their concerns of food security, farmers’ livelihood and rural development. The first is the Special Safeguard Mechanism (SSM), allowing for the temporary raising of tariffs. The other is the concept of Special Products (SP), which proposes to create a list of products that directly impact the developmental concerns of developing countries and should not be subject to tariff reductions under the Doha talks.
Paragraph 7 of the Hong Kong Ministerial Declaration states:
Developing country members will also have the right to have recourse to a Special Safeguard Mechanism based on import quantity and price triggers, with precise arrangements to be further defined. Special Products and the Special Safeguard Mechanism shall be an integral part of the modalities and the outcome of negotiations in agriculture.
What this means is that a WTO member country will have the right to impose SSMs if it finds that imports are increasing to the extent that local markets are being disrupted (a ‘volume’ trigger) or if there is a collapse of the international price of that commodity which undermines or threatens to undermine the otherwise viable domestic production (a ‘price’ trigger).
The leading bloc arguing for SP and SSM is G33, which comprises more than 40 developing countries, including India and China. Although all WTO members have acquiesced in principle to establishing a SSM, some developed countries, particularly the United States, and some developing countries with an export interest in agriculture (such as Thailand, Paraguay, Argentina, Uruguay) have sought to restrict the use of SSMs. They seek, in particular, to limit the number of times it can be used and the extent to which it can be used to raise tariffs.
The main justification for SSM and SP is that international commodity prices remain extremely volatile. Studies show that there has been no systemic decline of volatility in the post-WTO period, and that import surges have been common in developing economies. A Food and Agriculture Organization report states that: ‘Indeed, import surges seem to be more common in product groups that are subject to high levels of subsidies in exporting countries, notably diary/livestock products (milk products, poultry parts), certain fruits and vegetable preparations and sugar’.Against this backdrop, developing countries are worried that the ambitious tariff reduction proposals being negotiated at the Doha Round will leave their domestic agriculture sector, and by extension their economies more generally, vulnerable. A SSM would provide a measure of insurance.
Unlike in industrial production, the production cycle of agriculture does not allow for sudden halts and rapid restarts in production. If cheaper imports lead to a fall in domestic production and the decreased demand persists for more than a few weeks, farmers may be forced to switch to other crops. It could be difficult for them to return to the original crop even when the price of that crop becomes favorable again in the medium term. Price volatility thus makes farmers disinclined to implement long-term plans to build capacity in particular crops, which would lead to economies of scale, and exposes farmers and the nation to damaging fluctuations in income.
Normal safeguards are insufficient to address this problem. When the price of industrial products declines factories can increase their inventory and save for when prices rise again. But when demand for domestic agricultural products is reduced, small farmers in developing countries find it difficult to store their product in the hope of a return to higher prices because of the lack of storage facilities and the perishability of agricultural products. What is needed is a mechanism to reduce the severity of fluctuations in prices. A SSM can do this.
The agriculture sector is a large part of the developing world and thus supports the livelihoods of a significant portion of its population. The viability and dynamism of the developing world’s agriculture sector thus remains essential to secure success in the developing world’s poverty alleviation strategies. The next ministerial at Bali in December must ensure pressure remains on developed nations to meet the aspirations of developing countries with regards to the global agriculture trade.
Rohit Sinha is a research intern and Geethanjali Nataraj is Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.
This article first appeared in East Asia Forum. Click here to go to the original.