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New Global Rules for a Fairer Food Future

Today, governments must strive to overcome the pandemic, build more inclusive and sustainable economies, and lay the foundations for a fairer and more resilient future. An agreement on food and agricultural trade at the World Trade Organization’s ministerial conference later this year would be an important start.

GENEVA – This year, governments can ensure that better international rules help get us back on track toward a fairer and more sustainable agricultural trading system, and overcome recent setbacks in our efforts to tackle hunger and malnutrition. The United Nations Food Systems Summit in September, the UN climate conference (COP26) in November, and the World Trade Organization ministerial conference starting later that month provide policymakers ample opportunity to deliver.

The COVID-19 pandemic, economic downturns, climate change, and conflict have all contributed to an increase in hunger and malnutrition. And the recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is the latest in a series of warnings that show why governments must take immediate bold action to address the challenges we face.

In particular, governments should focus on correcting and reducing the distortions currently burdening food and agricultural markets. If policymakers can improve how these markets function, vulnerable producers and consumers stand to benefit the most.

Clearly, business as usual is not an option. According to recent estimates from UN agencies, between 720 million and 811 million people faced hunger in 2020. Moreover, moderate or severe food insecurity has climbed slowly for the past six years, and now affects nearly one in three people globally. We must change course if we are to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal of ending hunger and malnutrition by the end of this decade.

The expected increase in the world’s population to nearly ten billion by 2050 adds a further element of urgency. Better rules regarding trade and markets can help improve food security by supporting efforts to create jobs, raise incomes, and boost agricultural productivity sustainably. Better-functioning markets would also bolster the food system’s resilience to global warming, as temperature and precipitation patterns change, and extreme weather events such as droughts, floods, and storms become more frequent and intense.

At the same time, the recent uptick in hunger and malnutrition must be seen in the context of the significant progress achieved in the last quarter-century. During this period, tens of millions of people have been lifted out of poverty and food insecurity as average incomes have risen and markets have become more integrated.

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According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, trade in food and agriculture has more than doubled in real terms since 1995, with the share of trade between developing countries also growing rapidly. Recently, new digital technologies have contributed to a transformation in food and agricultural markets by increasing productivity and easing cross-border trade in goods and services.

Furthermore, countries have negotiated and signed a growing number of new bilateral and regional trade agreements as they seek to improve their market access and deepen integration with trading partners – both in neighboring regions and farther afield. But, efforts to update global trade rules for food and agriculture have advanced only slowly.

At a 2015 meeting in Nairobi, trade ministers struck a deal to end agricultural export subsidies, thereby fulfilling one clear commitment under the SDGs. And in Bali two years earlier, countries reached an agreement under WTO auspices on other food and agriculture issues as part of a broader trade package. But much more needs to be done in order to address longstanding problems in food and agricultural markets, and ensure that global rules are also fit for purpose in the future.

In the run-up to the WTO’s ministerial conference, I am chairing talks among negotiators on a slate of seven farm-trade topics, including subsidies for goods such as cotton, restrictions on food exports, and the challenge of improving farmers’ access to markets. Also on the agenda are rules governing the procurement of food for public stocks, safeguards for farm goods, and rules on measures that resemble export subsidies. In all areas, improving transparency by making more information easily available is a critical concern for many countries.

Ministers could take a significant step forward at the WTO conference by agreeing to an outcome on food and agriculture that helps to rebuild trust, lays out a path forward, and galvanizes political engagement. This would enable us to re-establish confidence in our collective ability to address the challenges we face.

Today, we must strive to overcome the pandemic, build more inclusive and sustainable economies, and lay the foundations for a fairer and more resilient future. An agreement at the WTO that improves food and agricultural trade rules would be an important start.