WASHINGTON — The chief agricultural negotiator for the U.S. said Wednesday that World Trade Organization members must overcome significant obstacles before the 145 nations can reach an agreement on agriculture, which is crucial for the success of the broader negotiations.

This story first appeared in the March 27, 2003 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

WTO agricultural negotiators are engaged in their last scheduled session of global agricultural reform talks this week, attempting to forge a blueprint ahead of a March 31 deadline.

Allen Johnson, chief agricultural negotiator for the Office of the U.S Trade Representative, acknowledged it is a “difficult time,” but said the U.S. is continuing to push hard for results. Johnson said the European Union and Japan are proving to be big obstacles to reaching an agreement on key points such as tariff reductions on agricultural products and export subsidy reductions.

He said the EU must move forward this summer on its reforms to sever the link between production and subsidies, which he claimed is essential to moving the WTO negotiations ahead. The Japanese, he claimed, need to show more of a commitment to liberalization and market access. Japan fiercely protects agricultural products such as rice with astronomical tariffs, although it relies heavily on food imports.

Johnson said: “The deadline is a few short days away and we have a long way to go. A number of members, frankly, are not ready to move forward or can’t move forward to meet the obligations.”

Many critics claim the gaps are too wide and agricultural negotiators will most likely miss the deadline, which could delay negotiations in other sectors and push back the ambitious Jan. 1, 2005 deadline for dropping all quotas on textiles and apparel. Trade diplomats from the 145-member body have been deadlocked for months over how to liberalize agriculture trade.

The agriculture agreement is seen by many as the key to a wider round of trade negotiations, which would include much anticipated talks on tariff reductions for industrial products, including apparel and textiles. Large agricultural exporting countries like Australia, the U.S. and China claim the current proposal on agriculture does not go far enough, while importers like the European Union and Japan claim it cuts too deep.

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