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The value of unity in driving trade reform

This week I joined with farm representatives from other major exporting nations such as Argentina, Brazil, Canada and New Zealand to lead a fresh pitch for major trade reform during a meeting of the Cairns Group Farm Leaders in Geneva.

The Cairns Group Farm Leaders is an important group, chaired by the NFF. The Group has a responsibility to lead, coordinate and drive the agenda to prosecute the three pillars of global trade reform: the removal of export subsidies; expanding market access; and the removal of domestic subsidies. These pillars are as important now as they ever were given the geo-political developments we have seen this week.

The Cairns Group Farm Leaders met as part of the 30th anniversary celebrations of the formation of the Cairns Group. The NFF took a lead role in presenting the view of not only Australian farmers but farmers from countries like ours that rely on open, fair and growing markets ahead of the next World Trade Organisation (WTO) Ministerial Meeting in Buenos Aires in 2017. It’s at this meeting where governments can make some real change if they see fit to do so. So the opportunity take centre stage in Geneva and make sure the voice of the farmers was heard ahead of that meeting was too good to miss.

Reform of agricultural trade subsidies is still a major focus and while much has been achieved through bilateral trade agreements which we have supported, the elimination of export and domestic subsidies which have such a distorting impact on global markets can really only be addressed through the World Trade Organisation and that’s why NFF partnered with the Australian government to amplify and articulate these views to government and industry stakeholders in Geneva. The issues of liberalising markets and removing unfair assistance is too important. It is incumbent on the farm leaders to complement the activities of governments (at home and abroad) and communicate and demonstrate the impact these measures continue to have on our industry.

NFF CEO Tony Mahar (right) with the Ambassador for Chile in Geneva

To bring this issue home a little - in 2015 the share of world cotton production receiving direct government assistance, including direct payments, subsidies and border protection was 71%. That is almost three quarters of the total global production of cotton getting significant government subsidies of some description. This is up from just over 50% two decades ago.  When you think that Australian farmers get around 1% of their overall income from government subsidies - and they compete with farmers from the US, EU and Japan that get anywhere up to 40% of their income from government subsidies - you get an idea of why we need to take a lead on this issue.

By acting collectively through the Cairns Group Farm leaders we can have more influence and impact on agriculture negotiations. Far moreso than any individual members could have independently.

if we do not speak up... Australian farmers will continue to be on the wrong side of the (very uneven) playing field
Tony Mahar, NFF CEO

So what did I do over here I hear you say? Well in short, I met and discussed the views of Australian farmers with people that have an influence on what actually happens.

This included Tim Yeend, an Australian who is Chef De Cabinet and Principal Advisor to the Director General of the WTO. Tim was very clear in his feedback on the huge value in hearing from industry on how the things that happen in Geneva affect the real world.

I also met with Ambassadors and Deputy Ambassadors from like minded countries seeking their ongoing support for the issue.

Its important to ensure we have a collegiate and common approach to this issue otherwise our voices get lost. In addition to numerous smaller meetings, I also took centre stage at a forum where over 100 people from the WTO bureaucracy and member countries (not all 164 of them!) listened to what the Australian farm sector had to say.

The message I provided to that forum was loud and clear – do not retreat to the comfort of protectionism, we must adopt an agenda that has at its core serious reforms to trade rules that stimulate a vibrant and sustainable agriculture sector. Farmers need improved market access and the removal of unfair subsidies to grow and remain profitable. There are wins all-round if we can do it – so let’s get on with it.

There should be no mistake. The next round of WTO negotiations, particularly for agriculture, will continue to be challenging. But if we do not speak up on these and other issues the problem will not go away, and Australian farmers will continue to be on the wrong side of the (very uneven) playing field.  

Tony Mahar is the Chief Executive of the National Farmers' Federation. He travelled to Geneva as part of a partnership with the Australian Government aimed at addressing trade barriers.

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