WTO ministerial conference begins amid uncertainty

India, which is an important member of the G-33 grouping, is demanding amendments in the World Trade Organization (WTO) draft on agriculture to ensure its food security programme doesn't attract penalties if subsidy limits are breached.

Bali: Amid looming uncertainty, trade ministers and officials from 159 countries Tuesday began formal negotiations at the WTO ministerial meeting here in a bid to reach consensus on issues such as food security and trade facilitation.

Indonesian Trade Minister Gita Wirjawan, Chair of the Ninth Ministerial Conference, and the three Vice Chairs, in a joint statement, urged "all WTO members to come together over the next few days to make the necessary breakthroughs, working closely with WTO Director General Roberto Azevedo."

The Vice Chairs are UK Minister of Trade and Investment Lord Stephen Green, Rwanda Minister of Trade and Industry Francois Kanimba and Peru Minister for Trade and Tourism Magali Silva Velarde-Alvarez.

India, which is an important member of the G-33 grouping, is demanding amendments in the World Trade Organization (WTO) draft on agriculture to ensure its food security programme doesn't attract penalties if subsidy limits are breached.

On the other hand, developed countries such as the US are opposing any amendment and are pitching for a facilitation agreement to free global trade from procedural hassles at customs.

India yesterday made it clear it would not compromise on the food security issue.

According to the joint statement issued ahead of the meeting, a successful outcome in Bali would benefit everyone and provide a boost to the multilateral system.

"Trade lifts millions out of poverty. We echo the Director General's view that not a single human being living in poverty anywhere in the world will be better off if we fail at Bali," it added.

During the four-day meeting, trade ministers and officials will hold tough negotiations to reach consensus on the five main issues, including the trade facilitation agreement, public stock-holding for food security, tariff rate quote administration and export competition.

According to sources, the WTO chief has convened a meeting of all ministers tomorrow to discuss the matters.

Commerce and Industry Minister Anand Sharma, who heads the Indian delegation, met Zimbabwe Minister of Industry and Commerce Mike Bimha on the sidelines of the conference and apprised him of India's position.

Zimbabwe supported India's stand, sources said. Sharma conveyed to the minister that it would be difficult to reach a consensus where India's key concerns are diluted, the sources said, adding that Sharma also held a luncheon meeting with the trade ministers of Brazil and South Africa.
Later in the day, Sharma is expected to meet representatives from China, EU and Australia.

Supporting India's stance on food security, Olivier De Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, yesterday made a case for policy changes to allow developing countries the freedom to use their reserves without the threat of WTO sanctions.

"Trade rules must be shaped around the food security policies that developing countries need, rather than policies having to tiptoe around WTO rules," he said.

The Bali package, De Schutter added, "should now enshrine the rights of developing countries to use public food reserves for food security without facing sanctions."

Stressing that local food production is the first building block on the road to realising the right to food, he said, "Trade must complement local production, not justify its abandonment."

De Schutter also cautioned that food security is at high risk when countries become overly dependent on global markets, as shown during the global food crisis of 2007-08.

"They must develop ambitious and innovative food security policies that support their own production base, building on successful experiences in a growing number of countries," he said, adding the food reserves are crucial for providing stable income to farmers and to ensure a steady flow of affordable food for poor consumers.

India's National Food Security Act mandates distribution of subsidised food grains to much of the population, combined with a minimum support price to ensure adequate income for farmers. This has raised concerns that India could breach the tight limits on, trade-distorting support, applied to developing countries under current WTO rules.

"Temporary import restrictions, active marketing boards, and safety-net insurance schemes must all be part of the toolbox," said De Schutter, adding that even if some policies are not disallowed, they are discouraged by the complexity of the current rules and the threat of legal action.

In Bali and beyond, he added, "we must work to enshrine these flexibilities and must continue to ask what kind of trade rules will allow us to combat food insecurity and realise the human right to food."