BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The United States, the European Union and 20 other members of the World Trade Organization have agreed to keep the trade of food and agricultural products open in the face of restrictions designed to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus.

In a joint statement dated April 22, the WTO members – which include Australia, Brazil, Canada and Japan – said some countries were imposing export restrictions despite lessons from the past that this increased food insecurity for vulnerable populations.

“The world’s poor, including agricultural workers, would bear the brunt of increased export restrictions,” the statement said.

Top rice exporter India paused rice exports due to labour shortages and logistics problems. Third-largest exporter Vietnam has also curbed exports.

African nations – where many people spend more than half of their income on food – are among the most vulnerable to disruptions in staple food supplies.

The WTO group, which accounts for 63% of global agriculture and agri-food exports and 55% of imports, said it was committed not to impose export restrictions on these products and to exercise restraint in establishing domestic food stocks.

The group also committed to ensure that supply chains remain open and that emergency measures must be targeted, proportionate, transparent and temporary. Members also agreed to discuss how to improve WTO’s preparedness for regional and international pandemics.

The other signatories are Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Hong Kong, South Korea, Malawi, Mexico, New Zealand, Paraguay, Peru, Qatar, Singapore, Switzerland, Taiwan, Ukraine and Uruguay.

(Reporting by Philip Blenkinsop; Editing by Bernadette Baum)