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The Cotton and Sugar Subsidies Decisions: WTO's Dispute Settlement System Rebalances the Agreement on Agriculture
UF Law Faculty Publications
  • Stephen J. Powell, University of Florida Levin College of Law
  • Andrew Schmitz, Universtity of Florida
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As far back as David Ricardo's shattering insight as to comparative advantage in 1817, agriculture has enjoyed special favor in trade. The unique place of farming was so well established by the time the 1947 General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade ("GATT") was negotiated that GATT's tight disciplines on government interference with free trade not only exempted government protections to growers, but in fact were drafted to be fully consistent with the agricultural policies of the major signatories. While it would be an exaggeration to argue that GATT' s first half century was without impact on agricultural benefits, the sector at any rate took center stage during negotiations to create the World Trade Organization ("WTO") because by the time these talks began in 1986, subsidy-induced overproduction had led to widespread displacement of efficient producers from their traditional markets. Many felt this result was far from realization of David Ricardo's compelling economic case for the smallest possible government intervention. While widely hailed for bringing agriculture, at last, under the GATT/WTO umbrella, 1995's Agreement on Agriculture ("Agreement on Agriculture") more than lived up to the promise of Article 20 that "substantial ... reductionsin support and protection resulting in fundamental reform is an ongoing process.'' Both as to export subsidies -- those contingent upon export performance and, thus, with the most direct impact on export prices and trade --and the remaining domestic subsidies, the Agreement on Agriculture's ambitions are so modest that many experts believed its generous exemptions and undefined terms rarely would permit successful reining in by dispute settlement panels of the nearly $1 billion a day developed nations provide to their farmers. Two decisions issued by WTO dispute settlement panels on September 8, 2004, belie that prediction. Brazil, an agricultural superpower in its own right, was a complainant in both cases. In the first case, a Panel found United States subsidies to upland cotton were sufficiently in excess of those granted by the UNITED STATES during the baseline 1992 marketing year to be actionable under the Subsidies Agreement, despite the protection of the "Peace Clause" of the Agreement on Agriculture. The Cotton Panel went on to find that these subsidies caused serious prejudice to Brazil's cotton growers within the meaning of the Subsidies Agreement. In the second case, which involved the EU's Common Agricultural Policy, a Panel held that the EU had exceeded its agreed commitments on sugar in both the amount of exports and the level of subsidies. This paper will analyze the major holdings of the Sugar and Cotton decisions from both a legal and an economic perspective, assess the WTO implications of those holdings on other crops and on Doha Round agriculture negotiations, and examine the effects on other United States exports of the failure of the United States to implement the decisions separate from Doha Round negotiations.
Citation Information
Stephen J. Powell & Andrew Schmitz, The Cotton and Sugar Subsidies Decisions: WTO's Dispute Settlement System Rebalances the Agreement on Agriculture, 10 Drake J. Agric. L. 287 (2005), available at