Vol. 4 Num 36 Wed. July 02, 2003  

Top UN officials urge US, EU for fairer farm trade

Two of the United Nations' top officials pleaded with the United States and the European Union on Monday to drop subsidies benefiting big farmers or face driving millions in rich and poor countries deeper into poverty.

The two -- Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Rubens Ricupero, head of the world body's trade and development agency UNCTAD were speaking as negotiators at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) struggled to agree on how to free up agriculture markets.

"The time has come for all parties to show more flexibility, and give priority to the global interest," Annan told a session of the UN's Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) in a reference to the WTO's troubled Doha Round of trade talks.

"Poor farmers in developing countries want to trade their way out of poverty," he told reporters later. "They must be allowed to do that."

Agreement on working to end subsidies which developing countries say mean they cannot sell their produce on major markets because they allow US and EU farmers to dump theirs at artificially low prices is seen as vital for the round.

But only 10 weeks away from a key ministerial conference in Cancun, Mexico, which could decide its fate, WTO countries still appear far from settling their differences.

Ricupero, also addressing ECOSOC, said the subsidy system in the United States and France was intensifying "distress and misery" for small-scale farmers in the two countries while wrecking peasant agriculture in the developing world.

The former Brazilian finance minister cited figures showing small farmers increasingly abandoning the land or falling into poverty in the United States and a similar picture in France where it was accompanied by a surge in rural suicides.

"How can this happen in a country well known for its vigorous defence of farm subsidies?" he asked.

In both countries the world's two largest agricultural exporters large-scale farming which is often in industrial-sized agro-complexes cornered most of the government support, leaving smaller operators on the margin.

Ricupero hailed efforts by EU Farm Commissioner Franz Fischler in achieving agreement last week among the 15 member states amid fierce French resistance to radical change on reforming the Europe's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

It was, the UNCTAD chief, declared, "an encouraging change in the right direction" which the United States should follow.

But he said it was still far from clear whether the compromise accord aimed at decoupling subsidies from production would be less distorting to global trade in agricultural produce.

A similar wait-and-see view was voiced at a Geneva news briefing on Monday by US chief agriculture negotiator Allen Johnson, who said Washington wanted to see how far the CAP reshape would go to meeting key aims of the Doha Round talks.

"It is not fully clear to us what this CAP reform means," Johnson told reporters, after several days of informal discussions among the WTO's 146 member states on how subsidies and barriers to farm trade can be lowered or removed.

But he said Washington appreciated the efforts of EU Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy and Fischler to get changes to the CAP. "That is why we are trying to be very constructive," he added.

The Untied States has said it will agree to start dismantling its subsidy system which it argues is much smaller than the EU's -- when Brussels commits to real change.