Re-energized WTO Agriculture Negotiation ''Encouraging''
US official reiterates need for deadline to eliminate export subsidies
GENEVA, Switzerland - 03/29/04 - A top US official says he is somewhat encouraged by resumption of World Trade Organization (WTO) negotiations in agriculture after a seven-month suspension.
Allen Johnson, chief US agricultural trade negotiator, said developing country participants have moved beyond the rhetoric that characterized WTO negotiations before and during the failed September 2003 ministers' meeting in Cancun, Mexico.
The agriculture negotiations in Geneva during the week of March 22 are the first since August 2003.
"We have ... seen a generally positive attitude that encourages me this week," Johnson said. "I've seen countries engage in serious discussion about the issues. We don't see a lot of rhetoric."
Before the Cancun meeting, he said, participants were taking completely different approaches on agriculture. Now they are all working from the draft text submitted in Cancun as a point of departure, he said.
"I don't want to underestimate the difficulties we have in front of us," Johnson added.
For the US, if not most, other countries, agriculture trade reform is crucial to completing the WTO negotiations, which are called the Doha Development Agenda.
Johnson said participants view this meeting and another one likely to be scheduled soon, possibly in April, as steps to forging by summer a framework for more detailed negotiations, including setting numeric goals for reducing tariffs and subsidies.
The US is insisting that WTO participants commit to negotiate a deadline for eliminating export subsidies, he said. The European Union (EU), which uses nearly 100 times the level of export subsidies used by the US, resists this demand.
"Part of our responsibility is to try to understand what environment they need" in order to make that commitment, Johnson said, "but make it very clear to them that that is what's going to have to be done if this round is going to succeed."
The EU is insisting on parallel elimination of subsidies in export credits, food aid, state trading enterprises and differential export taxes.
Johnson said the US is willing to eliminate the export subsidy element of its export credits on the same schedule as the EU eliminates its export subsidies. He added that the US is willing to negotiate disciplines on food aid as long as those disciplines do not prevent food going to the hungry.
Johnson said the US still wants to reduce sharply the level of domestic agricultural subsidies - the EU level is three to five times the US level.
Additionally, he said the US needs much wider access to foreign agricultural markets, in both developed and developing countries. The US had proposed that tariffs be reduced by what is called a Swiss formula, where the highest tariffs are reduced the most and no tariffs exceed 25%.
That would depart fundamentally from the less-ambitious approach taken in the Uruguay Round of negotiations, which required only a mix of minimum and average cuts.
Johnson said the US was indicating to other participants that it might go along with a Uruguay Round approach for 2%-3% of agricultural items, the most politically sensitive ones.
Increased access to foreign markets could have a significant positive impact on California-based farmers, who have seen their sector literally shrink over the past several years.
According to the most recent US Department of Agriculture statistics, the number of California farms in 2002 was 79,709 compared to 87,991 in 1997, while the state's farmland total acreage shrank in size from 27.6 million acres to 28.8 million acres during the same period.
In addition, 46% of California's farms had less than $10,000 in sales of agricultural products in 2002, the last year for which figures are available.
Johnson made his comments from Geneva during a telephone interview with reporters in Washington.
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