India seeks easing of WTO food export rule

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India will impress upon the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to permit exports of grains from official reserves through government-to-government deals to cater to help countries tide over a food shortage and for humanitarian purposes, senior commerce ministry officials said on Monday.

At present, WTO rules make it difficult for a country to export grains from official granaries if these have been procured from producers at a fixed price (minimum support price, in India’s case), instead of market rates.

At the upcoming 12th WTO ministerial from June 12, New Delhi will also resist the bid by 70-80 countries led by Singapore to give binding commitment on exempting food items purchased by only the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) from any domestic restriction on exports. This group includes countries like the US, Canada and Australia.

Any such move, India fears, will tie its hands for supplying to other countries on humanitarian ground – especially neighbours like Afghanistan and Bangladesh, and some African nations – when a domestic ban is imposed. India recently imposed a ban on wheat exports but kept the window for supplies to the needy open through government-to-government deals.

The official sources also stressed that India has always heeded the WFP demand for food stuff and will continue to do so. But confining the policy space to allow just the WFP purchases will be too narrow an idea to address a problem as big as the global food shortage. So, if any such exemption is given to the WFP, it should also be extended to government-to-government supplies, India feels.

For this purpose, New Delhi is drumming up support from like-minded countries. Talks are going on to jointly float a proposal on behalf of 70-80 countries, including those in the G-33 and African nations, at the next WTO ministerial.

The WFP works in more than 120 countries and territories to supply food to people displaced by conflict or made destitute by disasters.

Disciplines on domestic farm subsidies

As rich nations are asking developing countries like India to trim their farm subsidies, New Delhi will highlight that any meaningful reform in agriculture must first seek to reduce the disproportionately huge subsidies provided by the developed world to its farmers. The aim must not be to further widen the asymmetries between developed and developing economies, said one of the officials quoted above.

However, the US and the EU are not engaging in talks on trimming their domestic subsidies, he added.

According to a paper submitted with the WTO earlier by India, China and others, the US’ domestic support per farmer was $60,586 in 2016, 267 times of India’s ($227), although Beijing’s support ($863) was almost four times of New Delhi’s.

In the 12th ministerial conference, issues like fisheries subsides agreement, WTO response to pandemic including the patent waiver, WTO reforms, food security and e-commerce would feature prominently.