India has made a forceful pitch at the World Trade Organization (WTO) 12th Ministerial Conference (MC12) in Geneva for food stockholding for public good and giving top priority to an expeditious solution on the issue of public foodstocks as the multilateral body met over outstanding issues that have divided the developed and developing countries.
“I carry the aspirations of 1.4 billion Indians who, despite global challenges, are actively participating as trusted partners in making this planet a better place. Our collective moral obligation is to ensure that no person, anywhere in the world, goes to bed hungry and WTO rules should facilitate this,” said Commerce and Industry Minister Piyush Goyal, addressing the plenary session of the MC12 as he urged the organisation for a permanent solution to the much prolonged matter before moving to new areas.
The four-day conference, which will conclude on Wednesday, comes against a spectre of rising food prices which are threatening the survival of millions by pushing the poor and vulnerable nations/people to the vagaries of imperfect markets and thereby triggering a humanitarian crisis.
This has underlined the importance of nurturing domestic capacities to produce food, said Goyal, who hit out at trading rules designed to restrict Indian fishermen’s right to life and livelihood. Goyal highlighted three sustainable traits of Indian fishing which strengthen the country’s demand for equitable fishing rights.
In the Indian context, since fishing is used to address hunger, poverty, food and nutrition insecurity, the activity is largely sustenance fishing and cannot be curtailed. Second, fisheries are global public commons and should strike the right balance on the principles of common but differentiated responsibility. Third, as Goyal pointed out, for food security and eradication of hunger, sustainable fishing is as important as agriculture which is also an important sustainable development goal (SDG).
Goyal asked nations responsible for depleted fish stock to assume responsibility, having exploited the oceans for far too long by giving subsidies and also sought WTO reform, which makes decision-making a precise, transparent and inclusive process and upholds the principles of consensus-based decision-making.
Reinforcing India’s experience to transit a food deficit nation to a largely self sufficient food nation at the G-33 ministerial meeting on the sidelines of the WTO conference, Goyal highlighted state support in the form of subsidies and other government interventions which have played a very important role to achieve this sufficiency.
The intervention is important at a time when, as Goyal pointed out, developing countries including the least developed countries (LDCs) continue to be at the receiving end, made to compromise and sometimes debate multiple times on the same subject. This is despite a protracted history of agricultural negotiations starting from the Uruguay round, followed by eight years of negotiations right up till 1994 when the Marrakesh agreement was finally decided, and leading to the establishment of the WTO.
Agriculture got a raw deal with imbalanced outcomes as those who were distorting markets by granting import subsidies continued to grant export subsidies under the Agreement on Agriculture (AOA). As most of the less developed or least developed countries were not giving out subsidies, they lost the right to grant significant subsidies in the future.
Further, the rules of agreement largely suited the developed countries’ socio-economic architecture, higher entitlement of subsidies for the developed world was institutionalised and the formula for calculation of market price support was flawed.
However, little has changed over the years with little progress on the way ahead. In the Ministerial Conference of 11 December 2013, members agreed to establish a work programme to be undertaken in the committee on agriculture to pursue this issue with the aim of making recommendations for a permanent solution.
It was also decided that the general council shall report to the 10th ministerial conference on the progress made on the work programme. The tactic has been to recognise the importance of public stockholding of food security purposes for developing countries, set up a peace clause till the permanent solution is finalised and take note of progress made so far.
India has questioned the logic of a fresh work programme and a ministerial declaration in MC12 as it already is an ongoing process and questioned if this is being done to try and fish India out on an agreement in fisheries by offering a work programme.
India and others in the G33 group of members have long been calling for accessible and effective special safeguard mechanism in order to address the destabilising and crippling effects of import surges and downward price movement largely due to huge subsidies by the developed members. They already have an aggregate measure of support entitlement which is quite large since there were already huge subsidies which were kept at a standstill for many years — almost five years ago. This is so, more particularly in the wake of volatility of the prices observed post pandemic an outcome remains for many members an important element of the agricultural package.
With the Agreement on Agriculture riddled with deep imbalances and favouring the developed countries, as a first step of agricultural reform the historical asymmetries and imbalances be corrected in order to ensure a rule based fair and equitable order. India also wants that the flexibilities provided under the development clauses under Article 6.2 of the Agreement on Agriculture not be changed in the name of domestic support reform.
Goyal also rued the inability of WTO to respond with alacrity to the Covid-19 related medical and health emergency of countries —even as India ramped up supplies of medical products to provide medical and health items globally — and called for introspection by rich countries.
“We have let down the people of the LDCs and developing countries. We need to bow our heads in shame for our inability to respond to the pandemic in time,” said Goyal. As part of WTO reform, Goyal said the multilateral body should not negotiate rules on non-trade-related subjects like climate change, gender, etc, which legitimately fall within the domain of other inter-governmental organisations.
Nivedita Mukherjee is a senior journalist covering economy, business, and trade.
An appeal from Swarajya
At Swarajya, we rely on our readers' support through subscriptions to sustain our media platform. Unlike larger conglomerates, we are unable to relentlessly chase advertising money — our model is largely built on your patronage.
Your support has never been more crucial. We work tirelessly to deliver 10-15 high-quality articles daily, ensuring you receive insightful content from 7 AM to 10 PM.
If you believe India's story has to be articulated in a way it has never been done before without shrugging it off, become a patron (or) subscribe now for ₹̶2̶4̶0̶0̶ ₹1999 and get 12 print issues, unlimited digital access for 1 year, a special India that is Bharat T-shirt (Offer ends soon).
We are counting on you!