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No headway in WTO farm talks

Tokyo. Feb. 15 (Reuters): Ministers from more than 20 countries failed to bridge bitter divisions on key agricultural trade reform on Saturday, sending a WTO blueprint back to the drawing board as thousands of farmers held noisy protests.

Failure to reach an agreement on agriculture could threaten the latest round of global trade liberalisation negotiations launched in Doha, Qatar in 2001, World Trade Organization spokesman Keith Rockwell said.

“It’s very clear that there’s quite a difference between the members of our organisation on this issue,” he said after the first working session.

“...To miss the agricultural modalities deadline would, I think, cast quite a serious pall over the overall process.”

After the opening talks on the divisive farm trade issue in Tokyo, an EU source told Reuters the WTO’s chief agricultural mediator had agreed, in the face of stiff opposition, to redraft his blueprint for reform.

Stuart Harbinson’s plan, released earlier this week, had proposed cutting the highest import tariffs on farm goods but not imposing ceilings on those duties.

The plan pleased neither of the two main camps in the talks — the United States and other big exporters that want aggressive liberalisation, and the more protectionist Japan and EU, which want less drastic change.

“Everyone agreed it was a good catalyst for debate,” the EU source said. But since members believed it could not form the basis for negotiations, Harbinson agreed to go back to the drawing board, the source said.

The Tokyo talks are meant to give ministers a chance to take stock of progress to date. But with the clock ticking toward a March 31 deadline to agree on such controversial farm issues as targets for tariff cuts, ministers remain as divided as ever.

The ministers also began talks to find common ground on proposals to allow developing countries to import cheap copies of patented medicine, including life-saving drugs.

Washington’s demand that extra restrictions be placed on the kind of drugs covered by the plan has already resulted in a missed deadline on the issue.

Failure to meet the March 31 deadline would reduce the chances of the overall set of WTO negotiations — on agriculture, services, manufactured goods and other sectors — being wrapped up by the target date of January 2005.

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