- The Washington Times - Friday, January 24, 2003

Lack of progress on opening agricultural markets would endanger ongoing talks at the World Trade Organization, a U.S. trade official said yesterday.

"We're at a critical point. … The agricultural negotiations are the key to this round," said Allen Johnson, the U.S. Trade Representative's chief agricultural negotiator.

Delegates from the 144-nation WTO are meeting informally this week in Geneva to work on an agenda for lowering agricultural subsidies and tariffs. At stake are billions of dollars in price supports and tariffs that protect domestic farming industries.

But the world's biggest agricultural traders disagree on how to change their agricultural policies and some worry that deadlines could pass without action, jeopardizing the round of talks on international trade. The first measure is March 31 when the WTO is supposed to summarize the delegates' positions on agriculture and lay the groundwork for formal negotiations.

"We believe that the deadline needs to be kept. We believe that it is essential that it be kept," Mr. Johnson said.

Others are less certain.

"We're working on the basis that deadlines will be met. But we don't know," said Gerard Kiely, counselor with the European Union's commission in Washington.

WTO delegates already watched one deadline pass late last year when they could not agree on a program that would allow developing countries access to generic drugs.

On agriculture, the United States is proposing measures at the WTO that would lower tariffs from a worldwide average of 62 percent to 15 percent and lower certain supports by $100 billion. But other major agricultural producers say the plan is unrealistic.

"We don't think the U.S. proposal will work," Mr. Kiely said, indicating a more gradual approach is necessary.

The 15-nation European Union is having its own internal problems presenting a plan. A commission proposal that would make some reductions in tariffs and push subsidies toward environmental projects was rejected by member state France this week.

Agricultural subsidies are closely tied to food safety, animal welfare and the environment and are politically sensitive in EU countries.

Mr. Kiely said member states could agree on a final proposal for the WTO as soon as next week.

Mr. Johnson said the EU plan is not ambitious enough.

The United States, the European Union and Japan are three of the world's biggest traders in agricultural products, and all rely to some degree on tariffs and price supports.

The measures chiefly affect farmers in developing countries when they cannot compete and cannot export products to Western markets.

A December report by the U.S. Agriculture Department estimated that agricultural support in the United States is worth about 21 percent of the country's production value, while it reaches 35 percent in Europe and almost 60 percent in Japan.

U.S. tariffs average 12 percent, EU tariffs 30 percent and Japan's almost 50 percent, the report said.

U.S. farmers are watching the talks carefully.

"The tariffs and the protections have to be done simultaneously by all producing countries or else it just won't work," said Bill Taliaferro, president of Montague Farms, a 4,000 acre family-owned farm based near Tappahannock, Va.

Mr. Taliaferro said that he has been able to export his main crop, soybeans, heavily to the Far East but has had only limited success cracking the European market, where he blamed subsidies and other obstacles for limiting opportunities.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide