North Korea

North Korea
The always bombastic and unpredictable North Koreans go hysterical again. This time the country is prepared to "go to war" with South Korea because that country is playing loudspeakers directed at North Korean territory. A headline from a UK paper reads, "More than 50 North Korea submarines 'leave their bases' as war talks with South continue "

Sunday, July 27, 2014

India challenges international trade agreement over food security

While the world remains fixated, and probably rightly so, on the carnage across the Middle East (ISIS, Syria, Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, Libya, and now once again Hamas and Israel), another meeting occurred in the past two days that nevertheless deserves more attention.

Last Friday at a meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, a reasonably low key meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO) erupted in anger when India refused to go along with a slide towards greater trade liberalization understandings. Called the Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA), India signaled it would not sign the document as its food security concerns had not been adequately addressed.

Grain being loaded into ocean going vessel. Grain reserves and ability to move volumes from areas of surplus to areas of need is important, but not to the point of stifling the vitality of local agricultural sectors. Photo from

In uncharacteristic fashion, India's stance provoked angry rhetoric from the US. "Today we are extremely discouraged that a small handful of members in this organisation are ready to walk away from their commitments at Bali, to kill the Bali agreement, to kill the power of that good faith and goodwill we all shared, to flip the lights in this building back to dark," U.S. Ambassador Michael Punke said in a statement.

In addition, the EU and Australia also sent India a letter stating their concern that the reluctance of India would bring further trade liberalization to a crawl.

What's the issue?

India in the past several rounds of WTO meetings has requested a satisfactory set of guarantees that food security for its millions of poorer citizens would not be jeopardized by further liberalization of food trade. As an article from the describes it in detail:

"The TFA aims to fast track any movement of goods among countries by cutting down bureaucratic obligations. The problem with TFA runs in a clause that says farm subsidies cannot be more than 10 percent of the value of agricultural production. If the cap is breached, other members can challenge it and also go on to impose trade sanctions on the country.

The developing countries would have a problem with the solutions offered by the developed countries as without the subsidies the food security of the developing nations could be seriously harmed. India agreed to the TFA in Bali only under the condition that interim relief would be provided to the developing nations. It said no legal actions or sanctions would be imposed on the developing nations till 2017, by which time a solution would be worked out among the nations. However, this interim relief would not be applicable if such subsidies would lead to trade distortions, by which one means, that prices of exports and imports cannot be affected by this.

India's Food Security Act, which is binding on the government by law now, implies that the government will provide very cheap food to the most vulnerable part of the population at extremely low prices. Apart from providing subsidies to the consumers, through the public distribution system, it also provides subsidies to the producers of food grains. So it buys food grains from farmers at a minimum support price, and subsidizes inputs like electricity and fertilizer.

The first problem is with the 10% cap on subsidies which will not be possible for India to achieve. Adding to the woes is the fact that the 10% cap is calculated based on 1986-88 prices when the prices of food grains were much lower. So the cap has to be updated taking into account the present prices of foodgrains.

The second problem is that even for providing subsidized food, India will have to open up its own stockpiling to international monitoring. It will not be able to add protein heavy grains like say, lentils, if it wants to, due to riders in the peace clause.

Third, it might seem unfair to developing countries to not crack down on farm subsidies that the United States provides to its farmers to the tune of more than $20 billion per year. While the WTO is binding the developing countries to protocols, the issue of subsidies by developed giants like US seems to be off the table."


India's new prime minister Modi is bringing some backbone to the world stage. Good for him.

India's new Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. Photo from

US Ambassador Punke is sounding like a punk. When one of the countries objecting to the TFA happens to be the 2nd most populous nation on earth, his description of "small handful of members" mis-characterizes the size and importance of the objection.

Michael Punke serves as Deputy United States Trade Representative and U.S. Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Geneva, Switzerland. (Teatree has no idea whether Punke is a punk, he might be a nice guy. But the criticism stands ...) Photo from

New leader of the WTO, Brazilian diplomat Roberto Carvalho de Azevedo, now has some serious work cut out for him. Teatree sincerely wishes him success in satisfying that "small member" India, while moving trade liberalization forward.

Azevedo leads the WTO, and his diplomatic skills are about to be called upon. Photo from

Western countries do subsidize their agricultural systems heavily, and don't like anyone pointing that out. Food security for any nation should be high priority. Subsidies - such as cheap bread in Egypt and several other countries - may not be efficient, but Teatree is all for supporting local home grown food programs and resisting cheap grain by the ship from nations which have industrialized their own food growing sector.

Food production in India may be outdated and inefficient, but there is a fine line between pulling the rug out from under a vital rural lifestyle and substituting efficient large farm systems leaving significant segments of poor rural citizens with little skills for other work. Photo from

This is ALWAYS an under-the-radar issue for the West which works best when kept low key. Hear, hear for India to bring it to the surface.

1 comment:

Sarah said...

Thanks for talking about something other than what everyone is talking about! Sad that a different conflict feels like a refreshing breather...