Time-out on Trade Talks and Global Negotiations Stall

GLOBAL - Talks at the World Trade Organization over food safety and animal and plant health as part of the on-going trade negotiations have come to an impasse.
calendar icon 1 April 2015
clock icon 5 minute read

Now the countries taking part have agreed to a break in the negotiations of to agree a definition of Sanitary and Phytosanitary related standards.

At a meeting of the Committee on Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) Measures, members agreed to a proposal from the co-stewards of the e-working group for a “cooling off” period to reflect on how to overcome the impasse.

Members of the e-working group have been unable to agree on a working definition of an SPS-related private standard.

This definition, as Chairperson Ms Lillian Bwalya of Zambia pointed out, is not meant to be a legal definition but rather provide a framework to limit the scope of issues considered by the committee.

Private standards are a growing concern among developing countries, many of whom took the floor at the committee meeting to urge continued efforts to find a compromise.

A survey carried out by the WTO Secretariat in 2009 found that the main entities imposing private standards were large retailers such as supermarkets and hypermarkets and that products identified as being most affected by these standards are fresh fruit and vegetables and fresh, chilled or frozen meat.

WTO members agreed in March 2011 on five “actions” for how WTO members might deal with private sector standards for food safety and animal and plant health. Securing a working definition on private standards is the first of these five actions.

China and New Zealand are co-stewarding the electronic working group on the issue and have put forward a proposed working definition.

While most members gave their support to the proposed definition, several developed country members said they could not support the proposal because it might imply that private standards are covered by the SPS Agreement.

Others said they were ready to be flexible but echoed the argument that private standards fall outside the scope of the SPS Agreement.

China and New Zealand proposed the following working definition: “An SPS-related private standard is a written requirement or condition, or a set of written requirements or conditions, related to food safety, or animal or plant life or health that may be used in commercial transactions and that is applied by a non-governmental entity that is not exercising governmental authority.”

The proposal also included a statement or footnote stating that the working definition did not prejudice the rights and obligations of members under the SPS Agreement or the views of members on the scope of this agreement.

China and New Zealand reported that opponents objected in particular to the use of the terms “non-governmental entity” and “requirements” in the proposed definition. Argentina countered that these terms have been used by standards bodies such as the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) in their definitions of private standards and had never received any objections.

Many African, Latin American and Caribbean countries took the floor to urge compromise, with some arguing that their exporters were being negatively affected by costly and arbitrary private standards. Among those intervening on the issue on 27 March were Argentina, Belize, Brazil, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, the Central African Republic, Cuba, Ecuador, India, Kenya, Mali, Nigeria, Senegal, and Uruguay.

Meanwhile, two papers on possible new approaches to tariff reductions have been put forward as a means of getting the Doha round of the trade talks to progress.

The WTO has also seen a series of consultations in smaller groups on market access and domestic support and an agriculture negotiations meeting of the full membership on 20 March 2015 deepen the discussions on these topics.

But they also showed that differences remain as the clock runs down on members’ aim to agree by 31 July 2015 on a work programme to conclude the Doha round negotiations.

“The issues are certainly becoming much more familiar with delegations but the convergence is still the real challenge that we face here,” concluded chairperson John Adank, who is New Zealand’s ambassador.

The two new unofficial papers from Paraguay and Argentina, both suggest that tariff reductions in agriculture should at least partly be achieved by members exchanging requests and offers with each other.

Paraguay proposes that countries’ offers would be based on an average tariff reduction figure, with some high and some low, that would also be subject to a minimum cut, whereas Argentina proposes offers and requests that are not based on any targets or formulas.

Whole the proposal from Argentina was rejected by some countries, the paper put forward by Paraguay was accepted although some countries had reservations.

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