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Ag groups encouraged as Doha talks resume

(Resource News International) — Left for dead back in the summer, the World Trade Organization’s struggling Doha round is slowly being prodded back to life through a series of informal consultations in Geneva — and Canadian agriculture groups welcome the news.

Since the beginning of October, Ambassador Crawford Falconer, chair of the WTO’s agricultural committee, has been meeting informally with countries to talk about the outstanding issues on which members had not been able to agree, and which ultimately led to the collapse of the ministerial-level farm talks in July.

According to the WTO, an agriculture meeting with the full membership is also eventually planned.

These “walks in the woods” talks, as they have been dubbed, give members the opportunity to voice their concerns and dislikes about the negotiating text issued in July and to talk about how to move Doha forward.

Key issues being discussed include the creation of new tariff rate quotas, sensitive products, tariff simplification, “green box,” cotton and tropical products, as well as special safeguard mechanisms.

Darcy Davis, president of the Canadian Agri-Food Trade Alliance, said the group is happy to hear Doha talks have started again. The group represents a number of grain and livestock commodity groups and other companies focused on trade liberalization.

“We would sure like to see new Trade Minister Stockwell Day get engaged with what is happening in Geneva and try to move things along,” Davis said.

Also, with the global economic crisis happening right now, it is more important than ever to work at reaching a trade agreement, said Darcy, an Alberta cow-calf producer who represents the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association on CAFTA.

“To just let it rest would be a mistake. More protectionist policies may be put into place in different countries and a lot of the gains that have been made could still be lost,” he said.

Weariness

The Canadian Federation of Agriculture also supports the resumption of Doha talks, said Ron Bonnett, second vice-president of the CFA.

Bonnett, an Algoma, Ont. cattle producer, had the opportunity to attend a meeting in Geneva at the end of September and was encouraged to see negotiators talking again, especially following the collapse of momentum this summer.

There is still a lot of weariness among negotiators, he said, but many countries recognize the need to push ahead with Doha in order to build on past progress.

“One thing I noticed, however, is that now I think some groups have decided to take this as an opportunity to insert some new side issues into the discussion,” he said.

“At this point, I think talking about side-issues is just opening up a whole new can of worms. We really have to concentrate on the things where headway had previously been made,” Bonnett continued.

He said the Ottawa-based industry association continues to hope for a trade deal that improves market access for Canadian farmers but at the same time does not undermine the country’s supply-management sectors.

The use of domestic subsidies is also a key issue the CFA would like to see addressed through Doha, particularly in light of the fact that another U.S. Farm Bill is about to come into effect, he said.

“Technical level”

Renee S. David, spokesperson for the trade media relations branch of Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada, confirmed that Canada is among the countries participating in the talks.

Trade is important to the Canadian economy and therefore a successful conclusion to the Doha round is in the country’s interest, David said.

“These discussions are being held at the technical level in order to better understand the outstanding issues, in an effort move the negotiations forward,” David said.

According to David, Canada is pressing for a deal that helps to level the international playing field for the agri-food sector, increases market access for goods and services providers, strengthens and clarifies rules on trade remedies, facilitates trade by cutting red tape at the border, and better integrates developing countries into the global trading system.

Not to be forgotten is further support for supply management, which David said the Canadian government will continue to defend at WTO meetings, informal or otherwise.

The current talks will be among the last ones chaired by Falconer, who confirmed his resignation and announced that he will be returning to New Zealand by the end of the year.

According to media reports, some members are hoping Falconer will issue one more draft negotiating text before his departure to solidify everything achieved in past negotiations and also to act as a basis for future farm talks.

Ambassador Falconer has reportedly said that is unlikely.

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