Manila seeks WTO deal on SSM, fisheries

The Philippines is aiming to secure a multilateral agreement that would strengthen the special safeguard mechanism (SSM) and protect its territorial waters and resources at the ongoing 12th Ministerial Conference (MC12) of the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Agriculture Undersecretary Fermin D. Adriano, co-head of the Philippine delegation to the MC12, said the negotiating team would seek to defend the country’s interests in at least three key agriculture and fisheries negotiations during the four-day high-level meeting of the WTO.

The MC12, which runs from June 12 to June 15, is currently being held in Geneva, Switzerland, after being postponed twice due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The MC12, which is co-hosted by Kazakhstan, was originally slated to take place in Nur Sultan, Kazakhstan last June 2020.

“Bottom line is strengthening SSM, [supporting] PSH [Public stockholding] and protecting our sea territories and resources,” Adriano, who oversees the agriculture department’s policy, planning and research department, told the BusinessMirror.

“But WTO being such a disparate and huge organization will face tremendous challenges in reaching agreements on these issues.”

The representatives of the Philippine Department of Agriculture (DA) to the MC12 include Agriculture Undersecretary Cheryl Marie N. Caballero and Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Assistant Director Demosthenes R. Escoto for fisheries negotiation, Assistant Secretary Noel A. Padre for safeguard measures negotiation, Assistant Secretary Agnes Catherine T. Miranda for other WTO concerns and Agriculture Attaché Lupino J. Lazaro Jr.

A draft ministerial decision on agriculture negotiation showed that permanent solutions on SSM and PSH may not be achieved at MC12.

The current language of the draft text stipulated that negotiations on PSH shall continue post-MC12 with the goal of “agreeing and adopting” a permanent solution by MC13. Likewise, negotiations on SSM shall continue with the end goal of “making recommendations for ministers at MC13.”

The SSM is one of the key interests of the Philippines in agriculture negotiations at the WTO. During the previous MC 11 held in Buenos Aires, Argentina, the Philippines expressed disappointment that the biennial high-level meeting of the WTO did not arrive at a decision regarding SSM. The Philippines proposed a price-based SSM at MC11.

It was a sticking point that forced the Philippines to deny any ministerial decision on agriculture negotiations. The Philippines said a proper solution on SSM or improved special agricultural safeguards (SSG) are critical for it to join any consensus on agriculture negotiations.

Manila has repeatedly emphasized that the approval of SSM is vital for its farm sector as the present SSG is inefficient and ineffective to protect its small-scale farmers from import surges and price depressions.

It noted that the country’s current trigger price for SSG-eligible commodities is way below prevailing global market prices, making the mechanism virtually dead. WTO member-countries may avail of SSGs, such as imposing additional duties, on imported commodities that are below their set trigger prices, which was computed based on the reference prices from 1986 to 1988.

PSH has also become one of the critical areas of negotiations in agriculture at the WTO, particularly for developing countries. At the MC10 in Nairobi, Kenya, WTO member-countries agreed that they would conclude a “permanent solution” on PSH during MC11, which did not materialize after negotiations broke down.

PSH is a tool that governments worldwide use to “to purchase, stockpile and distribute food when needed,” according to the WTO. In the case of the Philippines, the National Food Authority is the mandated agency to procure palay from local farmers for buffer stocking purposes.

“Many developing countries see a negotiating outcome in this area as a high priority and argue that this is one of the policy tools that could help developing members deal with the looming food security crisis,” according to a WTO briefer.

Fisheries subsidies

The Philippines has been playing hardball when it comes to the fisheries subsidies negotiations. The Philippines has been part of the numerous countries that have been pushing for the conclusion of the fisheries subsidies negotiations to arrest the decline in global fish stocks (Related story: https://businessmirror.com.ph/2021/07/19/phl-wants-to-hasten-wto-talks-on-fishing-rules/)

However, the Philippines has been lukewarm to the various draft texts on fisheries subsidies due to the exclusion of a provision regarding the occurrence of subsidies in illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUUF) in disputed waters.

The Philippines has maintained its position that there should be no subsidies in IUUF in disputed waters (Related story: https://businessmirror.com.ph/2020/11/27/phl-wont-accept-wto-fisheries-deal-without-an-iuuf-provision/).

“Issues of territorial claims or delimitation of maritime boundaries or zones are of the highest concern for the Philippines, but nothing must prohibit a duly constituted panel from hearing a case,” Agriculture Secretary William D. Dar said in a July 2021 ministerial meeting on fisheries subsidies.

No less than WTO Director General  Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala emphasized that the passage of a fisheries subsidies deal at the MC12 is a “litmus test” of the multilateral body to “deliver meaningful multilateral agreements.” The WTO is already way beyond the 2020 deadline set by the Sustainable Development Goal 14.6 to eliminate harmful IUUF subsidies.

SDG target 14.6 sets a deadline of 2020 for eliminating IUU subsidies and for prohibiting certain forms of fisheries subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and overfishing, with special and differential treatment for developing and least-developed countries. The negotiations on harmful fisheries subsidies at the WTO have been ongoing for more than two decades now.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimated that 34 percent of global fish stocks are overfished today compared with 10 percent in 1974.