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WTO farm talks edge forward, skirt big issues

Written by: Staff

GENEVA, Mar 24 (Reuters) WTO farm talks, a central part of global free trade negotiations, have made some progress ahead of an April deadline but a breakthrough will come only when key political issues are resolved, officials said today.

''It was not a bad week as these things go, perhaps even a little better than anticipated,'' said New Zealand ambassador Crawford Falconer, the talks' chairman.

Falconer, who plans soon to start circulating texts to highlight areas of convergence, said food aid was one area in which positions seemed to be narrowing after African states came forward with a new plan.

''We had a really good discussion on food aid. The Africans and the least developed countries helped a lot,'' he told journalists in Geneva.

On farm goods that the European Union, Japan and other mainly European rich producers will be able to shield from the full extent of future tariff cuts -- so-called sensitive products -- there was also some movement, he said.

''We saw the beginning of some topping and tailing,'' he said, indicating that those on the extremes of the argument were showing signs of being prepared to move towards the middle.

But diplomats said the issues debated during the week of closed-door talks, often conducted in small groups, had done little to resolve the central questions which could probably only be resolved by ministers.

Fundamentally, these are how far the EU and other rich nations are prepared to go in cutting tariffs and what further subsidy reductions the United States is willing to offer.

''We are not going to get those decisions here,'' said one diplomat, referring to the regular series of farm talks at the WTO's Geneva headquarters.

The next formal session is set for April 18, less than two weeks from the deadline WTO states have set for draft deals in farm and industrial goods that should contain all the difficult political trade-offs.

In return for freeing up its farm trade, the EU is pressing for more concessions from developing countries like Brazil and India on industrial tariffs and services.

But the divisions are not just North-South. Developing countries are also at odds over aspects of farm trade, including how far poorer countries should be prepared to cut tariffs.

Diplomats said India and Malaysia clashed over special products -- the developing country equivalent of the sensitive products for rich states.

Malaysia, backed by Thailand, wants to sell more palm oil to India, but Indian negotiators said throwing open the market would be suicide for its millions of small farmers, diplomats said.

There were similar divisions over special safeguards for poorer states against agricultural imports, with countries seeking to defend their farmers arguing they should be given a free hand in deciding how and when to deploy the measures.

Reuters SI DB2338

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