The future of agricultural trade governance in the World Trade Organization

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Constructing multilateral rules to govern trade in agricultural goods has been notoriously difficult. What success there has been relied on linking liberalization in agriculture to broader deals involving multiple sectors through the principle of the single undertaking, but the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) Nairobi ministerial conference of 2015 has abandoned that principle, shifting the multilateral trade system onto a new trajectory. Using the broad body of political economy theory, this article argues that there is now very little prospect that the WTO will be able to liberalize agricultural trade, with the consequence that the WTO will be unable to expand the trade opportunities of those countries that specialize in producing agricultural commodities. For this reason, the multilateral trade system looks increasingly ill-suited to the commercial needs of those low-income countries that are reliant on exporting agricultural goods and the promise of development through expanding trade based on comparative advantage is being tacitly pushed aside. This article argues that the abandonment of the single undertaking demands a deep reflection by WTO member states and other stakeholders on the underlying principles of the WTO, its future direction and how trade opportunities will be created for all within a system that has effectively abandoned further liberalization within agriculture.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1167–1184
JournalInternational Affairs
Issue number5
Early online date10 Aug 2017
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sept 2017


  • Trade
  • World Trade Organization


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