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Friday, 26 July, 2002, 12:18 GMT 13:18 UK
US moots cut in farm tariffs
Paddy field
Japanese rice production is heavily subsidised
Agriculture ministers are at daggers drawn in Japan after the US government, fresh from signing off on billions in new farm subsidies, proposed a plan to slash assistance for agriculture in the developed world.

The proposal was made by US agriculture minister Ann Veneman at a meeting in central Japan, aimed at paving the groundwork for World Trade Organisation talks on farm subsidies.

The US plan says tariffs worldwide should drop to a maximum of 25% from the average today of 62%. Its own import tariffs currently average 12%, and other exporters - Australia and Canada, in particular - are behind the plan.

The WTO wants to agree an agenda for the talks by 31 March 2003.

But the US proposal is likely to meet the resistance of the European Union and Japan, both of whom subsidise agriculture even more than the US and whose tariffs are far above the 25% barrier.

Drawing the line

Both say they treat agriculture partly as a social issue and as a way of encouraging and rewarding those who care for the environment.

To drive the point home, ministers spent Friday morning exploring rice paddies near Nara, the city hosting the talks.

Under the hot sun, ministers protected by wide straw hats heard their Japanese counterparts expound on the way paddies not only grew rice, but also prevented flooding and kept the countryside in good order.

Although she acknowledged the additional roles agriculture plays, Ms Veneman said the US had problems with "how the government should be involved".

Untrustworthy saviour

Developing countries have long complained that previous WTO talks ignored or downplayed their need for access to rich countries' agriculture markets.

In Doha last year - the venue for the first preparatory talks for the current round of trade negotiations - developing countries warned that new rules would be dead in the water without meaningful reform of the agricultural sector.

But they may see the US as a highly unlikely champion, given the massive increase in farm subsidies introduced by President George W Bush's administration earlier this year.

The White House abandoned its free trade stance in what was seen as an attempt to shore up support for Republican candidates in farming districts ahead of November's Congressional elections.

The US move on farm tariffs had come just months after the introduction of sweeping tariffs on steel imports, now under attack by all its trading partners at the WTO.

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