Agriculture: a major item on the agenda at WTO talks in Seattle

Agricultural trade will one of the most important and most sensitive issues on the agenda at the World Trade Organization (WTO) Ministerial Conference in Seattle, which runs through 3 December. This important conference marks the beginning of a new round of multilateral trade negotiations designed to further develop the framework for an international trading system. FAO's main concern during this round of talks is "to ensure that reform in the regulatory framework governing international agricultural trade is conducive to food security for all," said Mr Hartwig de Haen, Assistant Director-General of the FAO Economic and Social Department.

Trade reforms need to make the agricultural sector in developing countries more competitive
FAO/19711/G. Bizzarri

De Haen noted that many developing countries have already undertaken substantial domestic structural adjustment reforms. These have not only helped to reduce distortions in world markets, but have also reduced past disincentives against their own agriculture. He added that continued high levels of support and protection in some higher-income countries hurt the agriculture of other countries by depressing commodity prices, thus undermining investment in the sector. "Clearly", he noted, "developing countries efforts in this area will be less effective unless they are supported by corresponding reductions of distortions in higher-income countries."

Developing countries need to strengthen their agricultural sectors

FAO considers that the reform process should respect the need for developing countries to give priority to their own agricultural sector. For many low-income food-deficit countries, strengthening the agricultural sector is the surest and quickest means of combining sustained economic growth and poverty alleviation while enhancing domestic food production. "For developing countries, the key challenge in the forthcoming reform process is to ensure that the international regulatory framework governing agricultural trade will contribute to their agricultural development and food security," said de Haen.

Agricultural development can enhance food security in developing countries by increasing incomes and exports and generating foreign exchange. It also contributes to meeting domestic food requirements, which is especially important for the least-developed, net-food-importing countries whose food import bills have risen steadily during the last decade. Consequently, FAO considers that international trade reform should enable developing countries to pursue policies to increase agricultural productivity and thus become more competitive in domestic and export markets.

De Haen noted that tariff peaks remain in a number of commodities of export interest to developing countries. He added that many developing countries would benefit from a reduction in such tariff peaks and tariff escalation, as this would allow them to export higher value processed products.

The Uruguay Round's Agreement on Agriculture recognized that developing countries could be unable to adjust quickly to changes in international trade regulations. Accordingly, the agreement contains provisions that give special and differential treatment to developing countries. It is FAO's position that this flexibility needs to be maintained and even enhanced if developing countries are to realize their full agricultural potential.

Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights also to be considered

Also of concern to FAO is the agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights. This agreement outlines WTO member nations' obligations concerning the protection of intellectual property rights and covers a broad range of subjects, including agriculture. This agreement will have a profound impact on the evolution of the international agricultural sector and on the relationships between developing and developed countries and between the private and public sectors.

De Haen noted that many developing countries do not have sufficient technical and legal expertise to allow full participation during the upcoming negotiations on this issue. FAO feels it is important to strengthen the capacity of developing countries as quickly as possible, in order to make sure their interests are adequately represented. FAO's main concern is that the practical application of intellectual property rights ensures the secure growth of the agricultural sector in developing countries and takes into account the specific needs of these countries and their small-scale farmers.

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2 December 1999

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