WTO out of agriculture, demands global peasant movement in Geneva

Peasant and fisherfolk activists were among the drivers of civil society mobilizations at the WTO Ministerial Conference, where they called for the withdrawal of the organization from the agricultural sector 

June 16, 2022 by Ana Vračar
WTO agriculture
(Photo: La Via Campesina/Twitter)

Civil society mobilizations at the 12th Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Geneva continued for the fourth day in a row as the global peasant movement warned against the impacts of WTO’s agricultural agenda on their livelihoods. Peasants warned that rich countries persist in pushing content that undermines small-scale food production and food sovereignty, further amplifying the impact of the current global food crisis.

“The food crisis that is currently hitting the world is further proof that free trade – far from bringing about food security – is making people starve”, said La Via Campesina in a recent press release.

As part of the meeting’s agricultural agenda, trade delegates are discussing public stockholding of food and the space for members to limit imports to control price volatility, among other things. In case rich countries are able to advance their plans to further liberalize the agriculture and fishing sectors, this would have a disproportionate effect on people in the Global South, where small-scale farmers’ and fisherfolks’ livelihoods have already been eroded by the takeover of transnational companies (TNCs). 

WTO agricultural policies disrupt peasants’ livelihoods

Ever since the creation of the WTO, the organization has promoted liberalization of agriculture, meaning that countries were strongly discouraged or banned from prioritizing local production of food by e.g. subsidizing local small-scale production. Rich countries continue to perceive these measures as “disruptive to the market,” and therefore strongly oppose them whenever they reach the negotiating table.

Instead, it was the lives of thousands of people across the Global South that got disrupted because of the WTO policies. Activists from Africa, Asia, and Latin America described decades of working in an agricultural system which is completely subordinated to the interests of TNCs during a press conference organized by La Via Campesina. “Asian countries are basically under attack by TNCs. They are exploited for cheap labor and placement of machinery,” said Jeongyeol Kim from the Korean Women Peasants’ Association.

Her feeling was echoed by many other activists. Speaking at a press conference by Focus on the Global South shortly after the launch of the Ministerial Conference, Farooq Tariq from the Pakistan Kissan Rabita Committee said, “WTO and free trade agreements promote hunger. We are seeing many more poor people in the world because of this. In Pakistan, 20 million people have fallen into poverty over the past 2 years alone.”

Pablo Rosales from PANGISDA-Pilipinas said during the same conference that thanks to WTO’s work, “those who create food are going hungry.” With this he underlined the fact that current international trade regulation and agreements work to the benefit of large-scale industrial producers and TNCs, while small-scale farmers and fisherfolk are left far, far behind.

A failed project

In the case where governments do introduce “market-disrupting” measures to alleviate local hardship – as many have done during the COVID-19 pandemic by relying on public stockholding programs to enable access to subsidized food or support small-scale farmers – they are often threatened with retaliation by TNCs, aided by high-income countries. The fact that the blocking of such policies is sure to have a disastrous effect on marginalized communities and further weaken local food production remains of no concern for rich WTO members, however.

“They don’t care about that, they only care about squeezing profit from former colonized states. Countries should be able to create their own food and agriculture policy. WTO is leaving it all in the hands of TNCs”, said Tariq.

In the lead up to the Ministerial Conference, countries from the Global South submitted proposals which would enable them to do more when local agriculture policies are concerned, including India when it comes to public stockholding. Yet, considering that they had raised the issues on several previous occasions to no avail, it remains to be seen if this Ministerial Conference will lead to any concrete results.

Despite opposition by rich countries in all negotiation rounds, it seems that countries from the Global South are resisting the attempt to scrap their agenda. If they persist in doing so, and no consensus is reached, it could well be that this ministerial meeting meets a similar outcome as the WTO’s 11th Ministerial Conference, which led to no concrete result at all. According to trade justice activists, this would be yet another sign of the WTO’s incapacity to act.

“WTO is in a comatose state. High-income countries are desperate for some kind of outcome to prove the organization is not yet dead,” said Walden Bello, Senior Analyst at Focus on the Global South, at the press conference. 

As in support of the presumption that the meeting might not be going too well, the WTO Secretariat announced that the conference would be extended until 16 June, calling on members to “go the extra mile to find convergence on the various issues at stake” – code for no agreement being reached. While the possibility of some agenda points being finalized remains, it should not be taken as likely.

For peasant activists, moving agriculture out of the WTO has always been a priority, and has now taken a sense of renewed urgency. 

“The WTO is a failed project. Our global peasant movement calls on all States, especially those in the South, to leave the WTO immediately. We must create a new international framework for agriculture and trade based on food sovereignty,” said Morgan Ody, a peasant in Brittany, France, and general coordinator of La Via Campesina, on behalf of the global peasant movement.