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"To achieve food security, what most developing countries need are better means to protect and promote their own food supply, not further liberalisation of food trade."
GENEVA, Feb 8 (IPS) - The first negotiations of the year on the World Trade Organisation (WTO) Agriculture Agreement provides a profile of the array of interests that inspire each bloc of countries when it comes to liberalisation of a sector that trades nearly 600 trillion dollars annually.
The European Union (EU) once again defended its proposals for protectionism in farming, but this time was outdone by a more radical bloc led by Japan, which includes Switzerland, Norway, South Korea and the recent addition of Israel.
A majority of countries at the 140-member WTO considered Japan's initiatives regressive. They also won harsh criticism from the Cairns Group, which unites countries lobbying for zero or minimal agricultural subsidies worldwide.
The Cairns nations complained that Japan had benefited from the opening of markets for industrial products but is now preventing agriculturally competitive countries from obtaining the same sorts of opportunities.
The delegation from Uruguay, a Cairns member, stated that proposals like Japan's "deserve simply to be ignored."
"It offends the very spirit of international co-operation. If it weren't for the fact that it is such a tragedy for the multilateral trading system, one might be tempted to believe it is just a bad joke," commented Carlos Perez del Castillo, chief of the Uruguayan mission to the Geneva-based WTO.
The European proposals, meanwhile, are an attempt to incorporate non-trade related concerns into negotiations. These are based on what they call the multi-functionality of agriculture, which means taking into account the value of the rural landscape, the traditional farming life and animal welfare.
But beyond the insistence on non-trade aspects, delegates from some countries outside the EU indicated they believe the European initiatives constitute a contribution to the multilateral talks.
The nations of Mercosur (Southern Common Market) - Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, and associate members Bolivia and Chile - agree that the European proposal contains a series of positive elements that will allow progress to be made in the negotiations, but that there are also issues that do not contribute to the endeavour.
Initiatives put forth by least developed countries, such as Swaziland, Mauritius, island nations and members of the Caribbean Common Market (Caricom), reflect the difficulties that confront small economies that depend on exports of just one or two products.
Discussion of the proposals, which total 35, will continue during the next sessions of the WTO Committee on Agriculture, Mar 22-23. However, sources close to the talks said that the major lines of debate could already be discerned for the talks that will unfold throughout this year and ending in 2002.
The countries that are pressing hardest for agricultural trade liberalisation hope that the talks concentrate on the three themes already established by the WTO Agriculture Agreement: export subsidies, internal assistance and market access.
But the Europeans and the Japan-led bloc want the non-trade concerns on the negotiating table as well because they say such issues justify their enormous transfers of public funds to farmers in the form of subsidies.
Another point the Europeans are demanding for the agenda is special and differentiated treatment for developing countries, in particular those that are net importers of food.
The difficulties faced by developing countries that are dependent on food imports are a matter that awakens sympathy across the spectrum of trade blocs.
Yet another fact that poses complications for agriculture talks is the relatively short time before the WTO's ministerial conference, which could turn out to be the convocation of a new full round of international trade talks.
The WTO General Council established Thursday that the meeting is to be held in Doha, capital of Qatar, Nov 9-13.
The EU and other industrialised nations suggest that positions could become more flexible on agriculture if they coincide with negotiations that embrace other issues. The results would be more productive for all, they insinuate.
A bloc of developing countries and the Group of Cairns demand that the Europeans provide some sign that benefits would be greater because "the current proposals on agriculture don't show it," commented one Cairns source.
The United States, meanwhile, has maintained a wait-and-see attitude. The world trade giant's representatives in Geneva acknowledge that they are still awaiting instructions from the new government under George W. Bush.
Despite that fact, trade sources indicated that the US delegation had vetoed Mexico's candidacy to head the agricultural strategy committee. One diplomat commented that Washington likely predicts eventual trouble in agricultural trade with its southern neighbour.
The election of the Committee on Agriculture's president prevented the designation of officials to the WTO's highest bodies this week, though it appears to be a given that Stuart Harbison, of Hong Kong, will preside over the General Council.
The EU vetoed the candidates proposed by the Cairns Group, which in turn rejected the European nomination of Hungary, a former Cairns member, to the committee's presidency.
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