WTO: If Not Now – When?

July 2022

With an estimated four-fifths of the world’s population living in nations which are net food importers one would think the World Trade Organization (WTO) members would be eager to show they are key to solving rising food prices and growing shortages. After all, many of its 164 members are actively seeking alternative suppliers, have changed import policies and reduced duties all to stimulate trade and bring down consumer costs. Unfortunately, the WTO did not rise to the challenge.

In its first ministerial meeting in nearly five years the trade body agreed to, surprise, engage in more talks. As more of the world’s population is falling below the poverty line and face malnutrition, and those in middle and higher-income nations spend a growing share of their income on food, the WTO has again shown it is unable to address challenges and improve trade. In agriculture, rather than committing to improve the supply chain and enforce current agreements, only broad “promises” were made.

Members “promised” to ensure any emergency food security measures taken would be minimally trade distortive, “temporary, targeted and transparent”. Such promises will not override actions taken for domestic food security reasons.

Members again committed to reforming the WTO and to a “well-functioning dispute settlement system accessible to all members by 2024.” A system which has been broken for decades.

After a 21-year long negotiation, agreement was reached to limit, rather than eliminate, “subsidies to illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing” in international waters. Far less than promised years ago.

Consumers and producers deserve better than the impotent and expensive WTO. Unfortunately, member states are willing to allow the body to limp along and continue to deteriorate while at the same time pursuing regional trade agreements which contain limited, if any, enforcement mechanisms and endanger means to protect animal and plant health. Let’s face it – the WTO is no longer relevant to agricultural trade. The world has returned to the time when individual trade deals drive trade, which make international movement of goods more complex, costly and difficult to track. – Richard Fritz


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