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The World Trade Organization will draw up another proposal on farm trade reforms before its self-imposed March 31 deadline to set new rules, as members remained sharply at odds over the first draft issued by a WTO panel chief earlier this week, officials said Saturday.

As agricultural trade negotiations took center stage on the second day of the three-day WTO mini-ministerial conference, trade ministers from 22 nations and regions failed to reach an agreement.

Exporters, led by the United States and Australia, criticized the draft proposed by Stuart Harbinson, chairman of WTO agricultural trade negotiations, as “not ambitious enough.” Importers, such as Japan and the European Union, said it “lacked balance.”

In particular, how the first draft should be treated caused much squabbling. The U.S. called it “a starting point” for negotiations and Australia argued that members should take the proposal as a “base” on which to develop discussions.

The EU and Japan, however, rejected that proposal as unacceptable.

A solution appeared elusive as the two camps remained far apart on tariff cuts and subsidies. In the end, the 22 members agreed that Harbinson’s proposal should be considered a “catalyst” for the talks, according to officials who briefed reporters.

Japan is in the difficult position of chairing the talks while at the same time trying to protect its fragile farming industry.

Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi called on other participants to “foster a common understanding.”

Farm minister Tadamori Oshima also told reporters that while Japan is committed to meeting the March 31 deadline for setting numerical targets, it cannot “accept rules that would ruin (the nation’s) agricultural sector.

“Exporters said the Harbinson paper should be a starting point for the discussions, but I don’t think it should,” Oshima said. “I told the meeting that the paper should (simply) be a catalyst, and (I think) all the participants shared this view,” he added.

The paper released Wednesday by Harbinson calls for minimum cuts of between 25 percent and 45 percent and average reductions of 40 percent to 60 percent on all farm tariffs over five years.

These are larger average reductions than the 36 percent sought by the EU and Japan, but they do not meet the more aggressive demands of the U.S. and Australia for a uniform 25 percent ceiling on all farm tariffs.

Harbinson’s draft also calls for support for the domestic agriculture sector to be cut by 60 percent and export subsidies to be phased out entirely within nine years.

The ministerial gathering is part of a new round of trade liberalization talks under the WTO that started in Doha, Qatar, in November. The members are hoping to adopt the commitments by January 2005.

‘Mini-talks’ under fire

Nongovernmental organizations from around the world linked up with about 30 Japanese groups to demand Saturday that the World Trade Organization stop holding mini-ministerial meetings, which they describe as “undemocratic.”

Representatives of the international groups, Japan-based NGOs, farm bodies and trade unions filed the request in a meeting with Ichiro Fujisaki, Japan’s deputy foreign minister for economic affairs, on the sidelines of the three-day WTO mini-ministerial talks in Tokyo. The meeting started Friday.

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