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Sunday, 16 February, 2003, 14:38 GMT
Trade talks stuck in the sand
A protest by Korean farmers against cuts to farming subsidies
Feelings run strong in Asia about farm subsidies
The chances of reaching a new deal on world trade by the 2004 deadline are diminishing fast after trade talks in Tokyo failed to bring the multiple warring sides any closer together.

The 22-nation ministerial talks were billed as a last-ditch attempt to get the so-called "Doha Development Round" - the latest round of discussions begun in Doha, Qatar in November 2001 - back on track.

But on both agriculture and affordable drugs for Aids and other killer diseases, no-one could find a more optimistic description for the content than "constructive" - diplomatic code for no change on either side.

EU Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy
All in all, it was a fruitful and sometimes harsh discussion

Pascal LAmy
EU trade commissioner
The World Trade Organisation's plans to reform farming subsidies were either a step too far or not nearly enough, while the big pharmaceutical companies - represented by the US - refused to relent on the tight controls they want on countries' rights to break drug patents in emergencies.

Both issues are key to developing countries, which feel that trade talks to date have opened their markets up to the richer nations while they have received almost nothing in return.

'Full and frank'

The talks were designed to be informal, and were not intended to reach conclusions.

But even so, the heat in the debate was fierce.

The WTO's draft agriculture plan, designed to reduce import tariffs and eliminate export subsidies within nine years, was attacked by Japan and the European Union.

Japan's protection for its rice industry is not negotiable, the Japanese said, while European trade commissioner Pascal Lamy said he had held a "fruitful and sometimes harsh discussion".

But Australia, siding with the US and the rest of the Cairns Group of food-exporting countries on farm subsidies, said Europe "is not prepared to play the same role it expects of its partners".

And US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick, said Japan was "sacrificing its strength on the altar of rice".

WTO officials, meanwhile, remained optimistic for the next formal talks in Cancun, Mexico, later this year.

"Things have moved, are moving, although we cannot see the final outcome yet," said WTO Director General Supachai Panitchpakdi.

Drug debate

For developing countries, the mood was dark.

Most of sub-Saharan Africa, and much of Asia and Latin America, is threatened with social and economic devastation from the Aids pandemic.

Two deadlines for allowing access to patent-protected expensive drugs have been missed already, the most recent on 16 December failing because the US - alone out of 145 WTO members - blocked a deal.

Brazil, one of the few countries to have used its existing rights to produced generic drugs to the limit despite threats from both drug companies and the US government, put forward a proposal to let the World Health Organisation decide whether a country can make its own drugs or should be allowed to import them at special prices.

The BBC's Duncan Bartlett
"The issue of how to supply cheap medicines to people with diseases such as Aids is a matter of life and death to thousands"
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