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WTO Seeks to ‘Level the Playing Field’ for Cotton Farmers in Developing Countries

World Trade Organization (WTO) director-general Roberto Azevêdo, opening World Cotton Day on Monday, stressed the importance of cotton to many developing countries and said he hoped that the event would “bring together the cotton, trade and development communities to foster greater value addition and value capture in developing countries.”

Citing cotton’s key role in job creation and economic stability in several least-developed countries (LDCs), Azevêdo said countries should be mindful of the challenges faced by cotton farmers, including market access barriers, subsidies provided by some countries and supply-side challenges that limit the competitiveness of exports.

He stressed the importance of the linkages between trade, cotton and development. On the positive side, Azevedo credited WTO members for eliminating agricultural export subsidies, which he called “a major source of price distortions.” He said countries have also “worked to enable developing countries to benefit more from every step of the cotton value chain,” but added, “There is still much work to be done to level the playing field for cotton producers, especially in LDCs.”

Ministers at the special session devoted to World Cotton Day highlighted the strategic role of the raw materials for cotton-producing countries such as Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mali, known as the Cotton-Four (C-4), and other developing and least developed countries.

Benin trade minister Shadiya Alimatou underlined the cotton industry’s substantial contribution to poverty reduction, education, health care needs and economic growth.

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“Due to the stable development of cotton production and processing activity, young people and members of rural communities in the cotton growing areas are not tempted by the risky adventure of migration at sea and other makeshift means and routes of transport,” Alimatou said. “It is often said that ‘when cotton is fine, everything is fine in the C-4 countries.’”

Trade minster Harouna Kabore from Burkina Faso said that while cotton remains the African country’s main agricultural export and contributes more than 10 percent of gross domestic product, almost all production is exported without any processing, limiting its economic potential. He described measures his country is taking to boost the processing and local consumption of cotton products, as well as efforts to fight counterfeiting through a national labeling strategy.

“We are committed to multilateral negotiations to find fair, balanced and sustainable solutions to this thorny issue of distorting subsidies,” Chad minister Achta Djibrine said. “We urge WTO members to find solutions to the realities of millions of Africans unjustly deprived of the fruits of their labor…Chad favors a combination of a fair-trade approach and coordinated development assistance, which will ensure the sustainability of cotton sectors and will undoubtedly contribute to the sustainable development of African countries.”

At the end of a special session entitled “The Road Ahead for the Cotton Negotiations,” ministers and representatives from the C-4, Côte d’Ivoire, Brazil, China, the European Union, India and the U.S., issued a joint statement on the state of WTO’s cotton negotiations. The statement said, “Recognizing the importance of cotton production and trade for farmers, we will intensify our discussions on factors negatively impacting cotton trade and markets. We will continue our efforts aimed at enhancing transparency and monitoring of cotton-related trade measures affecting the global cotton market.”

According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), an estimated 26 million farmers grow cotton in 75 countries. Growing cotton, and processing it into products such as textiles and apparel, provides jobs and incomes to around 100 million families worldwide.

UNCTAD noted that cotton occupies just 2.1 percent of the world’s arable land, but meets 27 percent of the world’s textile needs. It is also one of the most important traded commodities, with an annual traded value of approximately $8 billion.

World Cotton Day was established to celebrate all aspects of cotton, from its qualities as a natural fiber to the benefits people obtain from its production, transformation, trade and consumption. The event is intended to shed light on the challenges faced by the cotton sector around the world, particularly in LDCs.