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A three-day WTO trade conference got off to a fiery start Friday as trade ministers from 22 countries clashed over a recent WTO draft proposal aimed at expanding farm trade.

Tensions were already running high earlier in the day as delegates met in twos to exchange views on an agricultural trade liberalization proposal released Wednesday by Stuart Harbinson, chairman of the World Trade Organization’s agricultural negotiations committee.

The Harbinson draft calls for a larger average tariff reduction than the 36 percent sought by a coalition of farm produce importers led by Japan and the European Union. It likewise does not meet the more stringent demand by exporters such as the United States and Australia for a uniform 25 percent ceiling on all farm tariffs.

The draft also calls for domestic agricultural subsidies, which distort trade, to be cut by 60 percent over five years, and export subsidies to be phased out entirely within nine years.

The ministerial gathering, part of a new round of trade liberalization talks that started in Doha, Qatar, in November 2001, kicked off with an informal working dinner. At the dinner, the ministers conveyed their stances on issues including farm trade liberalization, market access to nonagricultural goods and services, investment rules and antidumping measures.

During the pair meetings in the afternoon, farm minister Tadamori Oshima and Lyle Vanclief, Canadian minister of agriculture and agrifood, butted heads over the proposal.

Canada, a major produce exporter and a member of the Cairns group led by Australia, said the draft proposal would allow importers to maintain a “protectionist policy,” arguing that further liberalization of agricultural markets such as beef is necessary.

Oshima, on the other hand, took issue with Harbinson’s disregard for so-called nontrade concerns.

“We find the paper fundamentally faulted in that it has not shown interest in nontrade concerns,” ministry sources quoted Oshima as telling the Canadian minister.

Japan and the EU have argued that agriculture should not be treated in the same way as industrial goods because agriculture is not merely a trade instrument, but concurrently provides environmental benefits.

Oshima also met with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick, Australian Trade Minister Mark Vaile, EC Agriculture Commissioner Franz Fischler and Roberto Rodrigues, Brazilian minister of agriculture, livestock and food supply.

Agricultural trade negotiations, which are expected to overshadow all other issues at these trade talks, will be officially addressed in a morning session Saturday.

Hiranuma for status quo

Japan should continue to formulate trade policies based on close collaboration with the agricultural, foreign and economic ministries, Takeo Hiranuma, minister of economy, trade and industry, said Friday.

METI, the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry and the Foreign Ministry are working together to make “comprehensive judgments by taking national interests into account,” he said.

Hiranuma was responding to a proposal made Thursday by Kenji Miyahara, chairman of the Japan Foreign Trade Council, that a trade negotiation body similar to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative be formed to better represent Japan at global trade negotiations.

Hiranuma said simply that Miyahara’s proposal is “an idea” that deserves attention.

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