July 1st, 2006 04:58 EST
U.S. Agriculture Secretary "Worried" over WTO Tariff Negotiations
Washington -- The U.S. agriculture secretary has expressed alarm at developing countries' proposals in World Trade Organization (WTO) negotiations that he says would preclude any new market access for U.S. farm exports.
"Quite frankly, I am worried," Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns in Geneva told reporters in Washington by teleconference late June 30.
Johanns spoke just before he was scheduled to meet with ministers from the European Union (EU), Australia, Brazil, India and Japan. The Geneva meetings with ministers from more than 30 countries attending are scheduled to continue through July 2.
Disagreement over politically difficult agricultural issues has stalled the negotiations, formally called the Doha Development Agenda, almost since they were launched in 2001.
In October 2005, the United States offered to reduce sharply its domestic support spending for farmers -- from $19 billion a year to $7.6 billion for the most trade-distorting subsidies -- in exchange for sharp reductions of agricultural tariffs by developed and rapidly growing developing countries.
Since then, Johanns said, no other country has matched the U.S. offer for deep tariff cuts.
He said a smaller tariff cut proposed by the G20 group of developing countries and an even smaller one from the European Union would amount to little or no new market access because of many proposed product exclusions.
WTO puts these exclusions in categories called sensitive products and special products as well as measures called special safeguards. Johanns calls them all loopholes.
For example, he said, some countries have proposed excluding up to 15 percent of all agricultural products from tariff cuts as sensitive products even though excluding more than 2 percent erodes any additional market access.
Then, he said, a proposal by the G33 group of developing countries for excluding special products (designed to promote rural development) would deny U.S. exports access to 94 percent to 98 percent of developing countries' markets, including rapidly growing China, India and Brazil.
"You can see why I'm getting worried," Johanns said.
Further, he said, the G33 proposes protecting all agricultural products from surging imports by a special safeguard mechanism, which would be triggered automatically when imports rise above a certain level or if prices fall below a certain level. Unlike for WTO safeguard measures protecting nonagricultural products, countries using the special safeguard mechanism would not have to demonstrate injury to the domestic industry.
Combining the "very weak" G20 agricultural tariff cuts proposal with the G33 product exclusions, Johanns said, precludes any new market access.
Throughout the Geneva meetings, top U.S. officials have insisted they will not accept incremental reductions in agricultural tariffs.
"Suggestions that we need to settle for something less than achieving substantial improvements in market access -- for the sake of having a deal at any cost -- is a clear signal that the WTO is in danger of losing its way," U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab said earlier June 30. (See related article.)
Schwab and Johanns are leading the U.S. delegation to the WTO sessions, where the participants remained far apart just six months before the Doha round is scheduled to conclude.
Schwab said a trade agreement that opens market access through substantial tariff cuts would increase income to developing countries more than all the foreign aid and proposed debt relief offered by the world's wealthiest countries.
"Creating new trade flows will be the yardstick used to measure our success," she said.
Schwab's statement to the Trade Negotiations Committee can be accessed at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative Web site. A transcript of Johanns' briefing and a statement by Schwab and Johanns are accessible at the U.S. Department of Agriculture Web site. An audio file of a briefing by U.S. officials in Geneva can be accessed at the Web site of the U.S. mission in Geneva.
For ongoing coverage, see USA and the WTO.
(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)