WTO farm talks mediator delays revised draft

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GENEVA, Nov 2 (Reuters) The chairman of farm talks at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) said on Friday he was delaying his revision of a draft negotiating text, widely seen as the key to a comprehensive deal in the long-running Doha round.

Trade diplomats said New Zealand's WTO ambassador, Crawford Falconer, needed more time to bridge gaps over how much countries would open up their markets for food and how they would protect politically sensitive products.

Falconer would now issue the eagerly awaited revision at the end of November instead of the middle of the month, they said.

The delay underlines how difficult it is to reach agreement among the WTO's 151 members with their conflicting interests in the Doha talks, launched six years ago to boost the world economy and help developing countries by freeing up world trade.

But it also shows that negotiators, who have been working intensively since September, believe a little more time can still secure a deal.

''It's a delay for positive reasons,'' said a U.S. trade official.

KEY TO DEAL Agriculture is seen as the key to an overall deal because developing countries are hoping they will get better access to rich country markets if the European Union cuts its farm tariffs and the United States reduces its trade-distorting subsidies.

In return, developed countries want poor nations to open up their markets for manufactured goods by cutting industrial tariffs, a contentious area where there is still little agreement.

But even in agriculture, many developing countries fear their subsistence farmers could suffer or poor consumers be exposed to global market fluctuations if they open up to more competition.

Under Falconer's first draft in July, all countries would be able to treat a proportion of their farm products as sensitive.

These would be subject to smaller cuts in tariffs than the more general one.

Discussions since then have turned on how to measure the consumption of these products, and what level of detail to use in classifying them -- for instance low-fat yoghurt or yoghurt in general.

Falconer's delay will allow a group of rich countries to provide him with detailed consumption data, which he will then discuss with negotiators during the week of Nov. 12.

''All of the key developed countries have now agreed that they will provide that data,'' Falconer told reporters. Falconer himself did not estimate when the revision would appear.

Poor countries are seeking further ways to protect their farmers beyond the use of sensitive products available to all.

One would allow them to designate certain products as special, and so subject to smaller than usual tariff cuts.

Another big stumbling block is the proposed special safeguard mechanism, which would allow developing countries to protect their producers by raising import duties to counter the effects of a sudden fall in prices or surge in imports. U.S. officials say there may be no significant gains in agricultural market access in developing countries as a result of the special products and safeguards mechanism.

And the issue divides developing countries, some of whom like Brazil and Thailand are themselves big food exporters.

The delay will also allow Falconer to take account of a meeting of the G-20 group of developing countries, set up to ensure that poor nations' agriculture priorities are reflected in the Doha talks, that Brazil has called for Nov. 15 in Geneva.

Agreement on the outlines of a deal in farming could then allow negotiators to put deals on industry and on services such as banking and telecoms into place in the talks.


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