GENEVA - Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala of the World Trade Organization (WTO) has urged member nations to intensify their efforts toward achieving a potential outcome on cotton for the upcoming 13th Ministerial Conference (MC13) scheduled for February. During her address at the "World Cotton Day 2023" event hosted by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) in Vienna, Okonjo-Iweala emphasized the difficulties faced by cotton producers in the least developed countries, which have adverse consequences for both the sector and the livelihoods of those dependent on cotton.
Over the past two decades, negotiations at the WTO regarding the trade aspects of cotton have encountered obstacles, failing to yield a conclusive result. Okonjo-Iweala acknowledged this challenge, stating, "There is no point sugar-coating things: over the past 20 years, WTO members have not made progress on cotton in the context of the negotiations on agriculture. Persistent distortions in international markets impede the fair participation of many cotton-producing countries. This is a collective failure, one there is no running away from. But we won't give up trying to get the right outcomes for cotton producers in our negotiations."
Okonjo-Iweala highlighted the limited timeframe available in the coming weeks for WTO members to collaborate and define a suitable cotton outcome for MC13. She specifically called upon members, especially the Cotton-4 (C-4) countries, which include Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, and Côte d'Ivoire, to engage with each other to explore potential agreements and outline a possible outcome for MC13.
MC13 is set to take place from February 26 to 29 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
Discussions on cotton at the WTO occur through two complementary tracks: trade aspects, involving multilateral negotiations aimed at addressing subsidies and trade barriers for cotton; and development assistance provided to cotton production and its value chain.
World Cotton Day (WCD) originated in 2019 at the request of the C-4 countries to recognize the global significance of cotton and raise awareness of their cotton-specific trade and development needs. In September 2021, WCD became the official UN International Day of Cotton.
This year's WCD theme at UNIDO was "Making cotton fair and sustainable for all, from farm to fashion," and it garnered support from various organizations, including the WTO, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the International Trade Centre, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the International Cotton Advisory Committee (ICAC).
Okonjo-Iweala underscored the importance of the theme, given the sector's significance for the livelihoods of millions of people worldwide, particularly in some of the world's poorest countries. She noted the numerous challenges faced by C-4 and other least developed country (LDC) cotton producers, such as price volatility, market distortions, climate change impacts, pest issues, and downstream challenges.
Wanledom Robertine, Chad's Minister of Trade and Industry and the C-4 coordinator, highlighted that cotton accounts for around 12 percent of GDP and 40 percent of total export receipts for African countries and LDCs exporting cotton. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has severely impacted the African cotton sector, exacerbating rural migration and the migrant crisis.
Robertine called for substantial measures to address productivity and cotton processing challenges in Africa and promote job creation and structural development within the cotton value chain.
ICAC Executive Director Eric Trachtenberg shared that the global cotton sector is valued at US$ 50 billion, with US$ 20 billion in global trade. Cotton supports 20 million growers and benefits 100 million people along the value chain. He emphasized the need to transition to sustainable and climate-resilient production due to the challenges posed by climate change and weather effects.
In response, Okonjo-Iweala highlighted the WTO's active efforts to support C-4 countries and their partners in increasing production, diversifying output, and adding value to cotton and its by-products. She expressed hope that World Cotton Day would serve as a pivotal platform for coordinating efforts to improve the lives of cotton producers and traders in the near future.