Background on the Cairns Group and the WTO Doha Round
The Cairns Group is a unique coalition of 19 developed and developing
agricultural exporting countries with a commitment to achieving free trade
in agriculture*. The Cairns Group has been an influential voice in the
agricultural trade reform debate since its inception in 1986.
The Cairns Group negotiated successfully for the inclusion of new
agricultural trade rules to reform global agricultural trade during the
1986-94 Uruguay Round negotiations under the General Agreement on Tariffs
and Trade (GATT), These efforts brought agriculture into the global trading
system for the first time and ended the export subsidy war that threw global
agriculture into crisis in the late 1980s.
Since the end of the Uruguay Round and the creation of the World Trade
Organisation (WTO), the Cairns Group has continued to be a strong and
constant voice for agricultural reform. It played an important role in
launching the current Doha Round of negotiations in 2001, ensuring that
agriculture remained front and centre of the Round’s "development" mandate.
The Cairns Group has pushed hard for ambitious agricultural trade reform
throughout the Doha negotiations in the face of considerable resistance from
some WTO members who prefer that protection for agriculture be maintained.
In doing so, the Cairns Group has engaged effectively with other groupings
in the WTO, in particular the G20 group of developing countries, to build
support for agricultural trade reform.
The Cairns Group is an excellent example of successful coalition building
in the trade arena and has maintained its cohesion for over 20 years. Since
the end of the Uruguay Round, membership has risen from 14 to 19; Bolivia,
Costa Rica, Guatemala, Pakistan, Paraguay, Peru and South Africa have joined
the Group. Collectively, the members of the Cairns Group have exerted far
more influence than its members could have achieved independently.
Agricultural trade and the Cairns Group
The GATT was formed in 1948 to develop multilateral rules for fairer
world trade. The GATT rules enshrined the fundamental principles of
non-discrimination and "national treatment".
Agriculture was effectively excluded for the first four decades of the
GATT’s existence. This omission enabled rich developed economies to protect
and subsidise their farmers - with dire consequences for other agricultural
The main offenders were the European Community (EC), the United States,
and Japan, which managed their agricultural markets using a combination of
high tariffs on agricultural imports and subsidies to their farm sectors.
These policies resulted in competitive exporters in Latin America, South
East Asia and Oceania playing the role of residual suppliers to their
traditional markets and being crowded out of most other markets.
The main justification for the high levels of support for EC, US and
Japanese farmers was the politically destabilising effect of food shortages.
Memories of food shortages during the Depression and World War II continued
to resonate and self-sufficiency in food remained a common objective.
The problem was that the approach of these three members to farm support
was fundamentally flawed and had seriously negative consequences for
efficient agricultural exporters and developing countries. Farm subsidies
and/or high tariffs resulted in huge food surpluses which were then disposed
of on the world market, driving down world prices. As a result, in the early
1980s, international farm trade was historically depressed.
The challenge for the Cairns Group lay in persuading the EC and the US to
reduce their farm support programs and particularly their direct export
subsidies, in the face of strong political pressure from their farm
The first Cairns Group meeting was held in Cairns, Australia, on 27
August 1986, one month before the launch of the Uruguay Round. Fourteen
countries attended, including a mix of developed countries (Australia, New
Zealand and Canada), developing South American countries (Argentina, Brazil,
Chile, Colombia and Uruguay), developing ASEAN countries (Indonesia,
Malaysia, Philippines and Thailand), an eastern European country (Hungary)
and a non-GATT member (Fiji).
In September 1986 at Punta del Este, Uruguay, the Group quickly achieved
its first success by helping to negotiate a broad negotiating mandate to
reform agricultural trade. While the outcome of the Round was delayed until
1994, it was ultimately successful in starting the process of reform to
global rules governing trade in agriculture.
Critically for the Group, the Uruguay Round outcome set some limits on
the use of export subsidies and farm support programs and was also
successful in making WTO members convert non-tariff measures, such as
quantitative restrictions, into tariffs. The resulting "tariff equivalents"
were high but this simplification would make it easier for future WTO rounds
to negotiate tariffs downwards.
The Cairns Group and the Doha Round
While the conclusion of the Uruguay Round was a significant milestone,
the Cairns Group always understood that it was only the beginning of the
battle to redress global distortions in agricultural markets. At the first
WTO Ministerial Meeting in Singapore in 1996, the Cairns Group began to
shape the future agricultural negotiation agenda - the first step in the
long process towards the launch of the Doha negotiations.
In 1998, the Cairns Group agreed to renew its blueprint for reform,
issuing a Vision Statement on the steps necessary to complete the process.
These steps included deep cuts to all tariffs, the elimination of all
trade-distorting domestic support; the elimination of export subsidies and
clear rules to prevent circumvention of export subsidy commitments. The
Vision Statement also reaffirmed the Group's support for the principle of
special and differential treatment for developing countries.
The core philosophy of the Vision Statement was that agricultural markets
free of distorting subsidies and open to global trade are key drivers of
international economic growth and development. This philosophy has remained
central to the Cairns Group’s approach to the Doha Round of negotiations,
launched in 2001.
Over the course of the Doha negotiations, the Cairns Group has pushed
strongly for agricultural trade reform. The Cairns Group has continued to
espouse the importance of substantial reductions in trade-distorting
domestic support and the elimination of export subsidies. Also critical to
an ambitious outcome in the Round, the Cairns Group has called for deep cuts
to all tariffs, an expansion of tariff quota access and improvements in
tariff quota administration.
Milestones since commencement of the Doha Round Negotiations
On 31 July 2004, WTO members reached agreement on the July 2004
Framework on Agriculture to guide the agricultural
negotiations in the Doha Round. Agreement was reached on the structures for
reductions in domestic support and cuts to tariffs, with the effect that the
greatest distortions would be treated most rigorously.
The WTO Hong Kong Ministerial Declaration made in
December 2005 saw further progress on the approach to reform agricultural
trade, and as part of concluding the Doha Round, established a commitment
for the elimination of export subsidies by the end of 2013.
The negotiations were suspended at the end of July 2006
after an attempt by ministers from six key players - Australia, the United
States, the European Union, Brazil, India and Japan - to break the deadlock
on a number of technical issues.
The Cairns Group used its 20th Anniversary Ministerial Meeting in
September 2006 to explore practical ways to get the negotiations
back on track. This meeting sent a united message to the major players about
the importance for global development of an ambitious and conclusion to the
Round. The Cairns Group agreed on a program of work to establish the
conditions for a successful conclusion to the negotiations.
Bilateral exchanges and ongoing technical discussions assisted in
creating a political environment for the resumption of negotiations. As a
result, WTO Members agreed to a full resumption of the Doha
negotiations in late January 2007.
The 31st Cairns Group Meeting in Lahore, Pakistan, in
April 2007 reaffirmed its efforts to conclude the Round, and highlighted a
number of proposals that fed into the development of the modalities texts.
In July 2007, the Agriculture Chair released a draft text,
and discussions and subsequent revisions of the Chair’s text continued until
The meeting of WTO Ministers in Geneva 21-29 July was the largest WTO
Ministerial Meeting since 2005. The July 2008 Package
reflected the considerable progress made by the WTO’s 153 Members since
2001. Convergence was reached on many of the outstanding issues, in both
agriculture and non-agricultural market access (NAMA). A handful of elements
in the package were unresolved – in particular, the Special Safeguards
Mechanism (SSM) for developing countries and cotton domestic support.
The December 2008 negotiating texts for agriculture and
NAMA incorporated the main elements of the progress made at the WTO’s
Ministerial Meeting in Geneva in July 2008 and subsequent technical work by
officials. These texts represent the significant progress achieved to date
in the two core areas of the Doha Round.
The 33rd Cairns Group Ministerial Meeting in Bali
in 2009 provided an important opportunity to reinvigorate the
negotiations and further build on the progress that had been made.
The Cairns Group recognised the good progress made in the
negotiations, and reaffirmed their commitment to resolving the
handful of outstanding issues. Cairns Group Ministers called for
senior negotiators to convene in Geneva to map out a clear path
towards conclusion of the negotiations, and to start before the 2009
European summer break. Special guests, US and India, endorsed this
Following negotiations in the second half of 2009 (after the
northern hemisphere summer break), Cairns Group Ministers expressed
concern at the limited progress in narrowing the differences on the
outstanding issues at the 34th Cairns Group Ministerial
Meeting in Geneva in 2009. The Cairns Group continued to
call for all WTO members to secure an ambitious and balanced outcome
to the Doha Round based on the progress already made, including
regarding the agriculture modalities.
During the March 2010 stocktake of the WTO Doha
Round in Geneva it became clear that Members were not in a position
to substantively resolve matters, and that further work is required.
The Chairman of the Committee on Agriculture Special Session, David
Walker, provided a report to the Trade Negotiations Committee for
the purpose of the stocktake.
The report provides a useful summary of the state of play in the
Doha Round's agriculture negotiations.
The 35th Cairns Group Ministerial Meeting in Punta del
Este, Uruguay, in 2010 provided the first opportunity for Ministers to meet to review the Doha Round following the March 2010 stocktake. This meeting was set against the background of a slowly recovering global economy.
In April 2011 the negotiating chairs circulated an Easter Package of documents, including a report by the Chairman of the Committee on Agriculture Special Session, David Walker. Following the 2011 APEC Ministers Responsible for Trade Meeting, and the subsequent informal meeting of Trade Ministers that was hosted by Dr Emerson in the sidelines of the OECD meeting in Paris, ministers acknowledged in May that the negotiations appeared to be deadlocked. By the Trade Negotiations Committee meeting in June, the Doha negotiations in Geneva had stalled, owing to what WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy described as ‘unbridgeable gaps’. While retaining aspirations for an ambitious Doha result, WTO members supported a downpayment of agreements focussed on Least Developed Countries for the 8th WTO Ministerial Conference in December.
In that context, the 36th Cairns Group Ministerial Meeting - to be held in Saskatoon, Canada, in September - comes during an especially challenging period for the WTO membership, in the lead-up to the WTO ministerial meeting in December.
The Cairns Group remains strongly committed to the Round and securing a clear path forward for agriculture related issues, including the elimination of export subsidies by 2013, substantial reductions and caps on trade distorting domestic support and substantial improvements in market access.
* Members of the Cairns Group are: Argentina, Australia, Bolivia,
Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Indonesia,
Malaysia, New Zealand, Pakistan, Paraguay, Peru, the Philippines,
South Africa, Thailand and Uruguay. Hungary (now part of the
European Community) and Fiji were founding members of the Cairns
Group, but have since withdrawn.