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Laws: Administration hedging its bets on Doha?

Is the Bush administration preparing to throw in the towel on the Doha Development Round? Twice in recent weeks, administration officials have gone out of their way to talk about their successes with regional and bilateral trade agreements while giving short shrift to the Doha Round.

At the USDA Outlook Forum in Arlington, Va., Agriculture Undersecretary J.B. Penn spent more time talking about the benefits of the latest free trade agreements and the prospects for FTAs with Korea than on Doha.

On March 8, just before he was scheduled to leave for London for a meeting of the G-6 countries, U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman gave reporters an in-depth discussion on regional and bilateral agreements and on enforcement of existing WTO rules.

Of course, Portman didn’t have much to talk about concerning the Doha Round since the European Union and activists have succeeded in diverting the attention of negotiators from issues such as market access to the U.S. cotton program.

The March 10-11 meeting of the G-6 countries — the European Union, Japan, Brazil, India, Australia and the United States — was supposed to help get negotiators back on track for meeting their April 30 deadline for an agreement on modalities.

Portman and Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns spoke to reporters after meeting with members of the House Agriculture Committee in executive session on March 8.

Earlier that week, Portman and Johanns met with each of the major farm organizations just like they did prior to the introduction of the U.S. proposal offering a 60-percent reduction in farm subsidies last November.

By the time you read this, Portman may have unveiled another “blockbuster” proposal at the G-6 meeting in London. But, until the European Union decides to give significant ground in market access; i.e., agrees to reduce its tariff regimes, few hold much hope for progress.

The big news out of the WTO has been a new proposal by the C-4 African cotton producing countries of Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mali for disciplines on domestic cotton support.

The latter would tie increased cotton disciplines to any overall level of reduction in agricultural support; seek specific limits on blue box support and a faster timeframe for implementation of reductions in U.S. cotton subsidies; and establish a “safety net” fund for those countries.

Portman told reporters the United States will only reduce its subsidies “if our farmers and ranchers have a more level playing field, and that’s the ability to sell their products fairly overseas. That seems quite reasonable, not only in terms of fairness and the realities here on Capitol Hill, but again in terms of the Doha Round.”

Administration officials have said free trade agreements were necessary to keep pressure on the Doha Round negotiations and as a backup in case the latter floundered. Portman and Penn’s comments could be an attempt to up the ante. Or they could be preparing the public for a failure in the WTO.

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