The first post-Covid in-person World Trade Organisation ministerial conference (MC12) is finally taking place in Geneva (postponed twice in the last years). Low expectations for the conference are now entirely pessimistic due to the growing tensions among WTO members around the war in Ukraine. Nonetheless, not all hope is lost, preparations on drafts and strategies have been taking place at an active pace since last week. General themes include fisheries subsidies, waiver of IP rights on vaccines and medical equipment, WTO reform, and a work programme for agriculture, including food security.
Secretive "Green room" negotiations moderated by the WTO Secretary-General Okonjo-Iweala involving only key WTO countries have prepared some initial proposals in the agricultural domain. These include a plan for reform of the rules on agriculture (a roadmap for future negotiations), a draft food security declaration, and a proposal to exempt the purchases of food via the UN World Food Programme from export restrictions. At focus is the draft declaration on food security, partly because the roadmap is likely to be non-controversial, while the exemption of purchases via the WFP meets fierce opposition from India and Tanzania (the latter likely influenced by India).
Although all WTO members are concerned about food supply security due to the shortages of wheat, sunflower and fertiliser deliveries from Black Sea ports, and about a high risk of supply shortages in poorest African states, there is no expectation for consensus on the food security declaration. The Western bloc (EU, UK, US, Australia, Canada) push for language condemning the Russian aggression and putting the blame for food supply shortages on Russia. The Russian bloc (Russia, possibly supported by certain Asian and even African nations) opposes any reference to Russia and aims to put the blame on Western sanctions against Russia. India, on its part, seeks support for its Public Stockholding enterprises as a factor ensuring food security, while the EU opposes any text in support of public stockholdings in agriculture. As a result, India is also likely to veto the food security declaration, if it fails to include a positive reference to public stockholdings.
UN-brokered negotiations on food security corridors
There are ongoing negotiations involving Russia, Turkey and UN officials aiming to release millions of tonnes of grain from Ukrainian grain storages and Black Sea ports. Reportedly, Russian forces now control or are able to control most of Ukraine's sea ports and have a role in releasing grain exports. Russia pledges its assistance in exchange for relaxing Western sanctions. The UN's goal, driven by food security considerations, is to free up not only Ukrainian grain, but also Russian grain and fertiliser. Reportedly, as part of those UN-brokered talks, Russia and Turkey have reached a preliminary agreement "in principle" between them on the steps to release grain exports, but Ukraine disputes this, suggesting that Russia seeks to shift the blame on Ukraine for the blockade of exports. In any event, Russia's foreign minister will continue negotiations in Turkey from 8 June "working out in detail all options". The EU and the UK are not taking part in those discussions, but are closely following them.
Belarus is also proposing its assistance to transit Ukrainian grain to Baltic sea ports, but wishes to exchange that for allowing exports of its own currently restricted goods. Lithuania opposes such a plan, not least to avoid a relaxation of the sanctions.
As the challenges on food security continue, the sector will be watching these talks closely and it will be interesting to see if a practical outcome can be reached. Now that the WTO Ministerial Conference has taken place, please see our overview and comment on the outcomes in this follow up article: Twelfth Ministerial Conference of the WTO reaches compromise on food security, SPS measures, patent waver for Covid-19 vaccines and fisheries.
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