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Thousands of farmers and members of the public took to the streets of Tokyo on Saturday to protest proposals to cut tariffs on farm products, a topic being debated at a World Trade Organization mini-ministerial meeting at the Imperial Hotel in the city.

Following a line of tractors, the demonstrators marched through Tokyo’s ritzy Ginza district and along other major roads chanting slogans including, “Defend food safety and the farming industry in Japan.”

“Japanese agriculture would die if we made further compromises (in negotiations with other WTO members),” farmer Kazuyoshi Fujita told a gathering in Tokyo’s Hibiya Park before the march. Fujita was among the organizers of the event.

Representatives of farmers’ organizations from countries including Canada, France, Indonesia, the Philippines and South Korea who want to shield their farming industries from more competitive imports also stepped up to the podium to express their support.

“I don’t think we are 100 percent right to keep the current tariffs forever,” rice farmer Tomoji Takahashi, 66, from Kanagawa Prefecture, said. “But it is wrong to force all countries in the world to follow a single rule. Diversity in each region should be respected.”

The organizers of the protest included the largest lobby of Japanese farmers, Japan’s Central Union of Agricultural Cooperatives (Zenchu).

“It is important to meet the needs for food, which is the source of human lives, basically with domestically produced products,” Isoshi Kajii, a professor emeritus at Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology, told the protesters.

While the protesters marched, the trade and farm ministers of 22 selected economies of the WTO were embroiled in a heated debate over the liberalization targets. Importing nations, led by Japan and the European Union, were pitted against exporters, led by the United States, on the second day of their three-day meeting.

The main issue at the meeting is a proposal by Stuart Harbinson, chairman of agricultural negotiations, that includes a minimum cut of between 25 percent and 45 percent and an average cut of between 40 percent and 60 in all farm tariffs over five years.

Other matters include an increase in import quotas to 10 percent of consumption, a 60 percent reduction in trade-distorting domestic subsidies and the phasing out of export subsidies within nine years.

Japan is particularly opposed to a proposed minimum 45 percent cut in its 490 percent rice tariff and a rise in the 7.2 percent “minimum access” mandatory rice import quota.

The Harbinson proposal is part of a first draft of formulas and targets, known as modalities, for the WTO members’ commitments to slash tariffs and subsidies.

The Tokyo meeting is the first since talks in November in Sydney.

It is designed to advance the trade round that the WTO began with a deadline of Jan. 1, 2005.

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