- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 21, 2004

World Trade Organization talks on agriculture resume today with nations still sharply divided on reducing subsidies and lowering barriers to farm goods, but with some optimism for progress.

The weeklong meeting in Geneva is the first formal gathering on agriculture since WTO talks collapsed in Cancun, Mexico, in September. The WTO’s 146 members are expected to get one another’s opinions on the delicate agricultural issues.

“I don’t think I would expect a piece of paper or anything out of it. I think it is more of a frank discussion, more informally than formally, as to how people see this moving forward both in substance and in process,” said Allen Johnson, chief agricultural negotiator for the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.

Agriculture is at the heart of the WTO talks. Farming is a major source of employment and income for developing nations, but is economically and politically important in the United States, the 15-nation European Union and other countries that dole out millions of dollars in subsidies to support prices and production.

“The whole issue of developed versus developing countries … that’s really the breakdown,” Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, said in a meeting with reporters.

A group of developing nations led by Brazil repeatedly has demanded an end to the subsidies that rich nations pay to farmers. The United States spent about $18.7 billion on farm subsidies in 2003, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, while Europe spends roughly $50 billion annually on rural development and its common agricultural policy. Japan and South Korea are other major subsidizers.

U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick has offered to eliminate some supports, but in return wants Brazil and its allies to eliminate barriers, such as tariffs and quotas, that limit exports to those nations.

Mr. Zoellick in January sent a letter to WTO members and last month traveled to several nations in an effort to revive the talks.

A U.S. push is considered essential to getting negotiations back on track.

“The reality is this: When the U.S. leads, the system can move forward; when it withdraws, the system drifts,” WTO Director-General Supachai Panitchpakdi said last month in a speech in Washington.

Mr. Zoellick and European Union officials battled over which subsidies should be cut, underscoring the difficulty for negotiators this year.

U.S. officials say good will alone will not be enough to resurrect the talks and keep 2004 from becoming a wasted year for the WTO.

“Obviously, Ambassador Zoellick has made a serious effort to get things moving again. I think he came back from his trip, and the response to his letter was a generally more positive attitude. But now is when we get into the harder work in terms of determining what exactly people are willing to do,” Mr. Johnson said.

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