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Agriculture Battle Looms Large on Eve of Global Trade Talks


In Hong Kong, delegates from 149 World Trade Organization economies are getting down to the nuts and bolts of global commerce. With the talks set to open formally on Tuesday, a stalemate continues over agricultural trade.

Member delegates of the World Trade Organization, or WTO, are scrambling this week to reach an agreement on four-year-old trade goals in the midst of a deadlock over agriculture.

Brazilian Agriculture Minister Roberto Rodrigues warned Monday developing countries will only open their markets to services and manufactured goods from richer countries only after they have received an acceptable offer on agriculture. Developing nations want access to highly protected agriculture markets in Europe and the United States.

However, European Union Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson says he will be offering no new concessions on the issue. He said Monday that a breakthrough in Hong Kong was "not possible", and said the WTO should instead aim for an agreement sometime next year.

WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy told a meeting of union leaders Monday in Hong Kong that agriculture is central to the talks.

"There will be no result of this negotiation without a quantum of disciplines on agriculture subsidies... without tariff reductions in agriculture," Mr. Lamy says.

When the WTO conference officially opens Tuesday, negotiators will try to find ways to liberalize trade in services and manufactured goods, as well as in agriculture.

One of the goals of the trade talks, known as the Doha round, is to help the world's poorest nations develop their economies.

However, Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz says making developing countries better off is not as simple as dropping agricultural tariffs and subsidies.

"When you eliminate subsidies for wheat or for rice, the global price will rise, and that will be good for producers - but it will be bad for consumers," Mr. Stiglitz says. "And many of the poorest countries of the world - sub-Saharan Africa - are net importers of food. And the result of that is that they will be actually worse off."

Mr. Stiglitz, who spoke to journalists in Hong Kong Monday, says market-opening measures must go hand in hand with aid packages targeted at the world's poor. He says he is confident WTO members can reach that kind of comprehensive deal in the long run.

Many experts warn failure to reach an agreement at this week's talks could severely cripple the WTO's effectiveness in meeting its goals. That could in turn boost the arguments of WTO opponents who say the body should be dismantled altogether.

Security for the WTO talks has been tight, although several thousand anti-WTO activists have converged on the city to hold protest events all week.

However, on Monday, French farm activist Jose Bove told a French radio program that he had been denied entry at the Hong Kong airport and was being detained until he could be placed on the next flight back to Paris. Mr. Lamy, the WTO director-general, reportedly said he would try to help Mr. Bove gain entry.

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