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WTO Members Try to Meet Deadline for Agricultural Issues

Members of the World Trade Organization, trying to meet a March 31 deadline to draft a framework for agricultural issues, were unable to reach agreement during talks in Japan. As the gathering ended in Tokyo, many of the delegates expressed disappointment.

The talks were billed as a way to make progress on cutting farm tariffs and other issues. But as ministers emerged from three days of discussions, it was evident that deep differences remain.

Australia's Trade Minister Mark Vaile blamed "a lack of political leadership" in the European Union and Japan. Some nations, such as India, defended a slow approach to opening markets, calling it a sensitive issue.

The chairwoman for the meeting, Japanese Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi, played down what some ministers termed a failure to find common ground. "This meeting is not a negotiating forum. We are not, as I said, we reflect the membership, but we are not representing the membership, so from the start it was not expected that we come to an agreement on agriculture market access. So we were very successful talking about crystallizing about agriculture market access," she said,

Delegates were said to have clashed in particular over a proposal to reducing agricultural tariffs by an average 60 percent in five years, cutting farm subsidies and raising import quotas.

The United States Trade Representative says more team spirit is needed to achieve those goals. Robert Zoellick singled out host Japan as one of the countries failing to show that spirit.

Noting Japan's steep tariffs on rice, he said Tokyo is sacrificing the country's strengths "on the altar of rice." "The effect of high tariffs is that rice producing countries, many of whom are developing countries, but also the United States, can't sell their products in Japan. But Japan wants to sell its cars and its consumer goods in the United States," he said. "We have a very large current account deficit with Japan. So is that fair? And how would people in Japan react if we shut their markets to their goods?"

The meeting here was a prelude to a full WTO ministerial conference in Mexico in September.

The Tokyo meeting also failed to resolve a disagreement over how to make anti-AIDS drugs more affordable for developing countries. The United States has rejected a proposal to ease some patent restrictions because it wants it limited to drugs that fight infectious diseases. Washington fears the proposal could be abused by some countries, which will violate lucrative drug patents.