Ministers participating in the three-day informal meeting of the World Trade Organization wrapped up discussions Sunday but failed to narrow a huge gap over the controversial farm trade issue, further clouding the prospect of meeting a self-imposed March 31 deadline.

Ministers vowed to commit themselves to meeting the deadline for setting numerical targets on reductions of tariffs and subsidies, which remains “an awesome challenge,” according to WTO spokesman Keith Rockwell.

Further negotiations are expected to take place in Geneva, but the Tokyo meeting is the last ministerial one before the March deadline.

Members clashed in particular over a preliminary draft proposal on farm trade released by Stuart Harbinson, chairman of the WTO Agricultural Negotiations Committee.

The Harbinson paper calls for minimum cuts of between 25 percent and 45 percent and average reductions of 40 percent to 60 percent on all farm tariffs.

Japan is calling for what it terms a more “balanced approach,” as the Harbinson draft would deal a serious blow to the nation’s rice market. Meanwhile, the U.S. and Australia are demanding a uniform 25 percent ceiling on all farm tariffs.

Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi, who presided as chair of the mini-ministerial meeting attended by 22 nations and regions, tried to play down the impression that the conference was a total failure.

“There was a wide and huge diversity of views, which was expected from the beginning,” Kawaguchi told a news conference after the meeting. “(But) the Harbinson paper was very successful in the sense that it motivated discussions and helped crystallize our thoughts.”

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick argued that opening Japan’s market to the global economy would benefit the nation’s manufacturers and service industries, and may boost its economy, which has been suffering for the past decade.

“Why make Japan’s economy a hostage to the 1.8 percent of the (Japanese) people who are part-time farmers?” Zoellick asked in a separate news conference. “In our view, they’re sacrificing Japan’s strength at the altar of rice.”

Farm Minister Tadamori Oshima said Zoellick’s comment “lacks analytical ability.”

“I’m skeptical on whether it will make the world better if we single-mindedly create rules for agricultural trade the same way we have done with industrial trade,” he said.

EU officials said Harbinson’s paper was simply a first draft.

“It was there to provoke reaction, and it did provoke reaction,” said EU Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy.

Kawaguchi noted that agriculture discussions held here would be reflected in Harbinson’s second draft, which is due out next month.

During the three-day meeting, ministers also failed to resolve disagreements on whether to ease restrictions on pharmaceutical patents so that poor countries have access to cheap generic drugs to cure deadly diseases, such as HIV and malaria.

But officials said that while there were some harsh exchanges among members on the drug access issue, a breakthrough now seems closer on the drug issue than on agriculture talks.

Takeo Hiranuma, minister of economics, trade and industry, also said that the desperate calls from some epidemic-plagued developing countries, especially in Africa, have been heard.

“There were representatives from Africa who said that they came all the way to the (Tokyo) meeting specifically to address this issue,” Hiranuma said. “I think the sense of urgency is shared by everyone.”

The ministers, meanwhile, reconfirmed their shared intention of advancing negotiations on other pressing issues, including market access to nonagricultural goods and services.

Brazil drug proposal

Brazil has proposed sending World Health Organization experts to developing countries to gauge their drug-manufacturing capacity in a bid to break an impasse over a global accord on access by poor nations to cheap generic drugs, delegates at just-ended trade talks in Tokyo said Sunday.

The South American nation made the proposal during the three-day informal World Trade Organization meeting that ended the same day, hoping it will ease the fears of U.S. pharmaceutical firms that countries capable of producing drugs such as Brazil, China and India could abuse the proposed accord by ignoring patents, the delegates said.

Brazil plans to officially submit the proposal for review at next week’s meeting of an intellectual property committee under the 145-member WTO in Geneva, said Clodoalo Hugueney, undersecretary for economic affairs at Brazil’s Foreign Ministry.

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