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By Shelbi Knisley, USW Director of Trade Policy

U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) recently joined a coalition of several U.S. agricultural organizations calling on the Biden Administration to work toward reforms to the World Trade Organization (WTO) “that lead to a market opening agenda for agriculture and a better functioning institution.”

USW signed the July 23, 2021, letter to U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack because it believes the WTO’s mission to liberalize global trade has benefitted the wheat farm families the organization represents and the world’s wheat importers. As the coalition stated on liberalized trade, “It helps connect American farming communities to peoples around the globe.”

Since it was formed in 1995, global wheat trade has doubled. The WTO provides a trade dispute mechanism that has identified the need to amend trade-distorting practices such as China’s domestic wheat support and unfilled wheat import tariff rate quota.

However, the letter also pointed out that “When the WTO functions poorly, and other governments get away with treating U.S. agriculture exports unfairly, trust erodes in our government and international institutions. To restore trust, WTO reform is needed.”

Leading issues of discussion at the WTO include challenges on tariff implementation, domestic support, transparency, sustainability, and climate. Following are some of the areas the coalition would like the U.S. officials to address at the WTO Ministerial Conference (MC12) in late November 2021:

  • Public stockholding (PSH) disciplines – PSH programs may serve a laudable food security goal but often lead to excessive domestic stockpiles, as we have seen in India and China. Those stocks lead to lower global prices and may force U.S. farmers to compete with subsidized exports.
  • Special safeguard mechanism (SSM) rules – SSM’s allow developing countries to temporarily impose import tariffs to protect domestic producers from competition, and at times may unfairly tax U.S. exports.
  • Domestic support limits – Domestic support, a subsidy that encourages production, is one of the most discussed topics in Geneva. Some countries want the U.S. and EU (both of whom are within the limits they agreed to) to slash their farm program spending, while the U.S. argues that many advanced developing countries are dramatically exceeding their own limits. The coalition supports negotiating new limits on domestic support if market access is also considered.
  • Export restrictions are policies that may limit the amount of a product being exported from a country in the form of a tax or set quantity. Some countries will impose export restrictions on commodities to control domestic prices. During the COVID pandemic, Russia imposed export restrictions on wheat exports to control domestic wheat prices. Countries are expected to consider a proposal to exempt purchases by humanitarian organizations like the World Food Program from these limits.

Addressing transparency is a leading concern because it has a significant effect on market access and export competition. For example, global wheat production and trade are negatively impacted by India’s domestic support policies for wheat. Resolving such issues would help the market operate more freely and allow more fair and equal trade for all wheat producers.

The world continues to change, and the demand on the agricultural industry to feed more people in more environmentally and socially sustainable ways is increasing. The coalition supports using science-based approaches to embrace innovations and technologies to address these challenges of sustainability and climate. Also, with this, the coalition supports a declaration on sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) measures, which would establish a committee on SPS measures to focus on harmonized regulation, risk analysis, sustainability, and innovation at the WTO.

USW remains committed to the WTO’s mission and believes that, with positive reforms, the organization can once again become a functioning, trusted institution for equal and fair trade for the people of the world.

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By Ben Conner, Partner, DTB AgriTrade

Over the last several years, U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) and other industry groups have demonstrated how the policies of a few advanced developing countries are distorting world wheat trade and hurting farmers in the United States and other wheat exporting countries. Chinese government grain policy attracted special attention, leading to two dispute cases at the World Trade Organization (WTO), one on excessive subsidies and one on China’s administration of a tariff rate quota on wheat, corn, and rice. By April 2018, WTO dispute panels had sided with the United States in both cases.

Today, the official settlement process for one of those cases has entered the next phase. On July 26, 2021, the United States asked the WTO Dispute Settlement Body (DSB) for authorization to raise tariffs on imports from China due to its failure to comply with the DSB recommendations on its tariff-rate quota (TRQ) administration. China blocked the request, which puts the matter before an arbitration panel. Simultaneously, China made its own request for another panel to review whether it has brought its policies into compliance.

Very close observers of WTO processes might experience deja vu because this is exactly what happened with the case on China’s subsidies for the same commodities last summer.

The next step is for the WTO to form two panels to review the requests of both China and the United States. The compliance panel will look at whether China’s TRQ administration is now functioning on a “transparent, predictable, and fair basis … using clearly specified administrative procedures,” as required by the DSB recommendations. An arbitration panel will review the U.S. request to raise tariffs and decide whether its methodology is appropriate.

Two Reasons for the Challenge

Why is the U.S. government taking this step forward on this case? After all, China has been importing record amounts of wheat and corn since the signing of the Phase One deal (rice is notably lagging) that included implementation of the WTO recommendations on TRQs and subsidies. There are two main reasons.

Procedurally, the U.S. government had to continue extending the window for China to comply (they had already agreed to seven extensions), allow that window to expire with no further action and forfeit its right to suspend concessions, or request that right within 20 days after the window expired. It chose the third option.

Even though China has allowed higher imports, there is still little clarity on how TRQ shares are allocated and reallocated.

If the process remains opaque and unpredictable, China will not be in compliance with its TRQ obligations, which could prevent imported wheat with qualities supplementing Chinese domestic wheat from reaching the Chinese wheat millers who could use it most effectively. It is encouraging that the U.S. and Chinese governments are continuing this case as it will help resolve disagreements over whether China is in compliance with its TRQ commitments and exert pressure to fix problems with Chinese government grain policy permanently.

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By Ben Conner, Partner, DTB Associates

The World Trade Organization (WTO) is preparing for its 12th Ministerial Conference (MC12) in Geneva at the end of the year; meanwhile there is widespread concern that the organization is drifting into irrelevance. But for U.S. farmers, the rules established by the WTO are directly relevant to their work in the fields, and their customers depend on the rules to ensure access to a reliable supply.

Here is a not-at-all unrealistic scenario:

Wheat farmers gather for a meeting at the local country elevator where they sell their crop. The manager tells the farmers that the elevator will not be able to buy any wheat treated with a very effective, foliar disease control product approved for use on wheat in the United States. The reason: the government of an overseas market has announced a zero tolerance for residues of that product on imported wheat and the grain trade cannot accept that risk.

This is but one illustration of the influence that policies in one country can have on practices in another. WTO rules – agreed to by almost every country – set parameters for these policies to ensure that they do not unjustifiably restrict trade. In this scenario, the country imposing the residue restriction may be acting consistently with WTO rules (though it is more unlikely if the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has approved the treatment) but it must be able to demonstrate that it met the criteria laid out in the relevant WTO agreements.

Monthly WTO Committee Meetings

Every month, representatives from WTO member countries meet in committees to probe policy development on issues just like this. They ask things like: what is the policy’s objective? Does the scientific evidence justify that conclusion? Did you consider the trade effects of that subsidy? Why are companies complaining that they cannot get an import license from your customs agencies? When will you submit transparency notifications? This work almost never makes the news but is a critical part of the statecraft needed to reduce friction in international trade.

Image representing trade barriers and the WTO role in preventing them.

“When countries impose trade barriers even after receiving extensive pushback in the World Trade Organization (WTO) committees, there will not be a quick solution and it will disrupt trade.”

The farmers in the fungicide scenario will almost certainly not be able to rely on the WTO committee process nor the dispute settlement mechanism to fix the problem before marketing their grain. When countries impose trade barriers even after receiving extensive pushback in the WTO committees, there will not be a quick solution and it will disrupt trade. Yet the committee process itself helps limit the number of ideas that ultimately become trade barriers. Questioning trade practices helps provide clarity, draw attention to a problem that can lead to a negotiated solution, build coalitions around a particular concern, and can serve as a prelude to dispute settlement litigation.

A WTO that Works

A functioning WTO is perhaps more important for agriculture than any other sector. Global agricultural trade is particularly complicated and there is little more sensitive than the food we eat. There are reasons why agriculture is the only economic sector with its own multilateral trade agreement, though other WTO agreements on sanitary and phytosanitary measures and technical barriers to trade are arguably even more important for the sector. Because of their sensitivity, agriculture issues are sometimes impossible to resolve through negotiation and the backstop of a litigated outcome (with the possibility of retaliation) is the only way to get a government to back down from a harmful trade policy.

Farmers prefer to use the most effective tools available for their crops. When it comes to agricultural trade policy problems, the most effective tools are often found at the WTO. Regardless of what happens at MC12, limiting trade barriers will require robust engagement by governments and industry in the often invisible work of this critical institution.