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Background

The Uruguay Round Agreement on Agriculture (AoA) marked a turning point in the history of the multilateral trading system by subjecting agricultural trade to essentially the same rules that discipline trade in industrial goods. For the first time, WTO members committed to reducing agricultural tariffs, export subsidies, and trade-distorting domestic support. The latest round of WTO trade negotiations, launched in the Qatari capital of Doha in November 2001, are the most ambitious attempt ever to spur global economic growth by liberalizing trade in agricultural and non-agricultural goods as well as freeing up trade in services.

In launching the Doha negotiations, WTO members recognized the contribution of the multilateral trading system to economic growth and development and pledged to continue the process of reform and liberalization of economic policies. The Doha Ministerial Declaration placed the interests of developing countries, who constitute the majority of WTO members, at the heart of negotiations, adding a new dimension to the talks that increased both the potential gains and the complexity of reaching agreement. Members agreed that "special and differential treatment for developing countries shall be an integral part of all elements of the negotiations." Having introduced a strong development dimension to the negotiations, member governments departed from using the term Doha Round, opting instead for Doha Development Agenda (DDA) to reflect the new emphasis.

The negotiations on agriculture were already almost 2 years old when they were incorporated into the DDA. Article 20 of the WTO Agreement on Agriculture (see AoA general issues) committed member governments to undertake negotiations to continue the reform process begun during the Uruguay Round (1986-94). The negotiations had to start no later than 5 years from 1995. Accordingly, the agriculture negotiations officially started in early 2000 and by the time of the Doha Ministerial Conference, 126 governments had submitted 45 negotiating proposals covering all major areas of the agriculture negotiations as well as a few new ones.

The agriculture discussions have since focused on the "three pillars"- market access, export subsidies, and domestic support-around which the agricultural talks were structured in the Uruguay Round. The Doha Declaration states, in part, that the objectives for agriculture are "substantial improvements in market access; reductions of, with a view to phasing out, all forms of export subsidies; and substantial reductions in trade distorting domestic support."

Partly because of the close tie between agriculture and development, agricultural talks within the DDA have taken center stage. They have also proven to be the most contentious issue in the negotiations. See the WTO's Doha Development Agenda: Negotiations, Implementation and Development for details.

Apart from the Doha negotiations, the ongoing work of various WTO committees also affects agricultural trade. These include the Committees on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures, Technical Barriers to Trade, Antidumping, and Subsidies and Countervailing Measures, as well as the work on accession of new and prospective WTO members, particularly Russia and Ukraine.

Another function of the WTO is to provide a forum where countries can resolve trade disputes. The Dispute Settlement Body (DSB) administers dispute settlement provisions and processes. The DSB is authorized to establish dispute settlement panels, adopt panel and appellate body reports, maintain surveillance of implementation of rules and recommendations, as well as authorize suspension of concessions and other obligations under WTO agreements.

Last updated: Monday, June 04, 2012

For more information contact: John Wainio

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