WTO Agriculture Seeds Watered This Week

This week in Geneva the special negotiation session on agricultural trade will recommence under the leadership of a new Chair, New Zealand’s Ambassador Crawford Falconer, ominously dubbed: ‘The Falcon’.

Falconer takes over as former Chair, Tim Groser, exits the stage at the behest of the New Zealand government in a domestic political upset. The upset sees Groser fall out of favour for performing a very South African practice, political ‘floor crossing’. This move is regrettable from the perspective of the agriculture negotiations as Groser was well liked and was instrumental in rallying divergent interests into a common statement last July with the consensus on an agriculture annex in the ‘July Package’. In the run up to the Hong Kong ministerial meeting in December, it is critical to keep some sense of continuity and forward motion in the WTO Committee on Agriculture.

Falconer has lucidly realised that the time for restating well known positions is now over. His statement that ‘there would seem to be little point in dedicating meeting or consultation time to the repetition of well known positions’ raises fading images of calls by another ex-chair, Stuart Harbinson, for ‘avenues of convergence’ in the negotiations before Cancún two years ago. Falconer is of course correct, but will no doubt be no less frustrated than was Harbinson by entrenched dogmatism from the WTO Membership. His intention is to give air time only to counties wishing to raise ‘genuinely new things’, which is a laudable start in laying down the discipline that will be needed in this group which holds the key to the resolution of the entire Doha negotiating agenda.

Indeed, there is some recognition of this need for discipline. At the meeting of the G-20 Group of reform minded developing countries held last week in Bhurban Pakistan, trade ministers, among them those of South Africa, Egypt, Tanzania and Zimbabwe, reiterated in their declaration that ‘agriculture is the engine of these negotiations, that it is vital to the economies of all developing countries and that their agricultural strategies support their economic development and poverty alleviation programs’. They also recognise that firm commitments are needed at this juncture, evidenced by their statement that ‘there is no room for complacency or for treating the process in a business-as-usual manner’. Let us hope that their trade officials are able to build actions upon these strong words.

There is little doubt that agriculture negotiators will need to start delving into some of the detail on concretising the modalities for further reform in the 3 agriculture pillars of domestic subsidies, agricultural tariffs and export subsidies. Falconer is also however expected to allow negotiators to raise other issues in the afternoon session on Friday 16 September, where Africans can for instance use the platform to make some concrete proposals on the modalities for approaching agricultural development.

Good news for South Africa is that SA’s first lady of agriculture, Minister Toko Didiza, has finally agreed that South Africa’s lead WTO agriculture negotiator, Ms Gerda van Dijk, will be transferred to the SA mission in Geneva to bolster South Africa’s influence on the agriculture negotiations as they begin to hot up. ‘This is a move welcomed widely by the private sector, especially those of us who believe that South Africa stands to gain from robust agricultural reforms’ says senior trade advisor Hilton Zunckel, who noted that agri-processors had already requested this type of representation when the Doha talks started back in 2001. From the agribusiness sector Lambert Botha, International Trade Advisor to the SA Agricultural Processors Association, echoed this sentiment and commented that ‘Geneva is a hotbed of sideline consultations and behind the scenes activity. If South Africa is to have a sporting chance of influencing the agriculture negotiations we have to be present and plugged into this dynamic. We certainly support the NDA in assigning a representative in Geneva.’

The meetings this week will be followed up again with a session during the week of 17 October 2005. Good hunting to ‘The Falcon’ in issue-clawing the rabbits from among the mice in the WTO’s negotiation farm yard.