CANCUN, Mexico — Responding to a demand from a group of sub-Saharan African countries to eliminate its cotton subsidy program, the U.S. has recommended that cotton, man-made fiber, textiles and apparel be treated as one sectoral group in the global trade talks.

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick said here Tuesday that he introduced the idea to African countries including Mali, Burkina Faso and Benin on Monday night. The African countries have claimed that U.S. cotton subsidies, which amount to about $3 billion, are severely harming their cotton production.

Currently, textiles and apparel fall under the industrial goods negotiations, and cotton falls under agriculture negotiations. The U.S. and European Union have made a proposal on agriculture that would reduce domestic subsidies and export subsidies. African countries are challenging that proposal, claiming it doesn’t cut deep enough and are demanding a rapid end to subsidized cotton in the U.S., EU, and China.

Trade ministers from 146 countries convened in the resort city of Cancún this week to try to reach a broad consensus on the comprehensive round of global trade talks aimed at opening markets worldwide by January 2005, when quotas are set to be eliminated.

Agriculture is the make-or-break issue, and if ministers fail to iron out their vast differences here, the Doha round could be in jeopardy.

“We want to come up with a comprehensive proposal that helps African cotton producers, as well as African apparel and textile producers,” Zoellick said at a press briefing on the eve of the talks. “The goal here is to help African cotton, textile and clothing producers become more competitive.”

He said distortions in the cotton and man-made fiber sector also affect textiles and apparel trade, which is characterized by serious market intervention through a range of government actions. Dealing with all of the trade distortions in one sectoral initiative could be the most meaningful approach, Zoellick said.

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