There are signs of progress in the global talks now underway in Geneva to liberalize trade in agricultural products.

Trade experts told a forum Monday at the Cato Institute in Washington that proposals from the United States and 18 other food exporting countries could break a negotiating deadlock. The plan would roll back domestic price supports, expand access to closed markets, and end export subsidies.

The Bush administration has presented the reform plan even though U.S. farmers are themselves heavily subsidized. Bob Stallman, the head of the American Farm Bureau, says the Bush administration wants to regain its credibility as a leading proponent of freer agricultural trade.

"Agriculture is key to this round. As has been referenced, agriculture is still the most heavily subsidized and protected sector in the world. I'm somewhat optimistic in the progress ag negotiations have made within the (WTO) committee on agriculture. They're further along in those negotiations than perhaps any other sector. I think that bodes well for a successful round," Mr. Stallman said.

New Zealand's ambassador in Washington, John Wood, agrees that the U.S. proposals are constructive and are supported by the Cairns Group, a collection of 18 Pacific, Latin American and African food exporting countries.

"In contrast there is little leadership evident in the stance being taken across the Atlantic in Europe and across the Pacific in Japan. These nations have tried to ignore the comprehensive proposals laid out by the United States and the Cairns group. But they have not put any credible suggestions of their own on the table in Geneva," Mr. Wood said.

Japan and the 15 nation European Union are often blamed as being the most resistant to opening their restricted domestic markets to more agricultural goods. But Pedro de Camargo Neto, Brazil's Minister of Agriculture and a member of the Cairns group, disagrees.

"I wouldn't put all the blame on Japan and Europe only. I think the developed world has not yet decided to give a chance to the developing countries. They are still fighting among themselves. And the Doha (current) round has to represent a chance for the developing countries," Mr. Neto said.

Other speakers describe the agricultural negotiations as divided into three parts: the United States and the 18 Cairns group countries favoring reform; Europe, Japan and South Korea as opposed; and developing countries in the middle, not yet having made up their minds. The U.S. proposals were submitted in mid-September and will be discussed for several more months.