Trade Ministers from the WTO’s 164-member countries will convene in Beunos Aires, Argentina from 10 to 13 December 2017 for the 11th Ministerial Conference, which is the highest decision-making body of the WTO. The last (10th) WTO Ministerial Conference took place in 2015 in Nairobi, Kenya. At that conference, WTO Members committed to eliminate all export subsidy entitlements. The 11th Ministerial Conference comes at the time when world leaders have pledged to end hunger and malnutrition by 2030 through objective two (2) of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This brings agriculture to the forefront in global development, and challenges WTO negotiators to find lasting solutions to outstanding issues that affects international trade on agricultural goods.

South Africa is among the developing countries that will be hoping for tangible commitments to correct and prevent trade restrictions and distortions in world agriculture markets. A commitment, especially among developed countries, to reduce domestic support remains one of the core issue for discussions during the Conference. Other issues related to agriculture on the table for negotiations are: finding a permanent solution regarding the public stockholding for food security purposes as well as engaging on the special safeguard mechanism (SSM) for developing countries. Whilst public stockings are critical for food security in some developing countries (notably to India), they have the potential for distorting trade when food is purchased at fixed (or administered) prices by the government.

The SSM would allow developing countries to temporarily increase tariffs on agriculture products in cases of imports surges or price declines. Ministers in Beunos Aires are expected to continue negotiating and reach decisions on these two issues (i.e. public stockholding and special safeguard mechanism). In terms of market access, Least Developed countries (LDCs) especially from West Africa are expected to call for commitments in respect of duty-free and quota-free market access for cotton and cotton-related products into the markets of developed countries as well as for the reform of domestic cotton policies that distort trade in cotton products. Finally, the use of export restrictions in respect of agricultural products is likely to be discussed, particularly the call for greater transparency in the use of these restrictions.

It remains unclear if trade Ministers will reach tangible commitments on these trade issues. However, if the world leaders want to achieve the zero hunger ambitions then there is an urgent need for trade ministers to find common solution to these issues that affects the production, investment as well as movement of goods across countries in the world.

Sifiso Ntombela (