Against the backdrop of an ongoing pandemic, rising global food insecurity, heightened geopolitical tensions and global warming, forging consensus amongst 164 members presents a daunting challenge. Yet, after years of WTO paralysis, the challenges facing this Ministerial Conference are around issues that underline the potential ongoing relevancy of this multilateral organisation. Unlike the hugely ambitious trade liberalisation agendas that were the hallmarks of previous high profile Ministerial meetings e.g. Seattle (1999), Doha (2001), the focal areas for this Ministerial meeting are few. The priorities are the WTO’s pandemic and food crisis responses.
Trócaire has been highlighting the huge gap in vaccination rates between lower income and higher income countries and the potential role for the WTO to help bridge this gap by agreeing a temporary intellectual property waiver on Covid-19 related vaccines, treatments and tests. This waiver would allow many more producers to manufacture generic versions of vaccines without fear of legal repercussions from Big Pharma and provide a predictable and affordable supply of effective vaccines to those who continue to be left behind and remain most vulnerable to Covid-19. The Ministerial pandemic response package can include a meaningful waiver, but will it? Such an outcome is very much dependent upon the positions a small number of members opposed to such a waiver, including the EU and UK, take.
The rapidly unfolding food crisis in many low-income countries, including countries in the Horn and East Africa where Trócaire works may seem very distant from a WTO Ministerial Conference in Geneva. Covid-19 and the conflict in Ukraine have served to underline pre-existing fragilities in global food systems. With agriculture and food security on the shortlist of focal areas to be addressed by this Ministerial Conference, can agreement be reached on immediate measures that can help mitigate the present unfolding food crisis as well as help build more resilient food systems going forward?
An immediate measure Ministers can agree is to refrain from imposing export restrictions on foodstuffs purchased for non-commercial humanitarian purposes by the World Food Programme. Similarly, members have an opportunity to reach a permanent solution for stockholding programmes for food security purposes in developing countries. Levelling the playing field for international agricultural trade and consideration of the WTO’s role in supporting the UN Secretary General’s call for the transformation of food systems is probably beyond the scope of this Ministerial meeting. Once again critical issues including the right of low-income countries to protect and promote local food production and regulate their agricultural markets to prevent food dumping from richer countries will in all likelihood be carried over to the next Ministerial meeting. Nonetheless, achieving agreement on a very limited number of issues, including a pandemic and food crisis response may be enough to underscore the WTO’s continued relevancy.