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Cairns Group urges trade reform, CFA wary

Canada and fellow Cairns Group countries have inked a joint statement urging pledges of substantially reduced domestic supports, improved market access and an end to export subsidies as a way to jolt the Doha round of world ag trade talks back to life.

“We welcome the recent calls for re-engagement on the negotiations and the reaffirmation from (World Trade Organization) members of the importance of concluding the round,” the group’s trade ministers said in a joint communique Tuesday after their meeting in Bali, Indonesia.

A successful conclusion to the Doha round during the current global economic crisis “would deliver a much needed contribution to economic recovery and demonstrate the benefits of the multilateral trading system,” the Cairns members wrote.

“This outcome is within our grasp, and we are determined to make it happen.”

WTO member countries “now need a transparent and inclusive process of engagement at both the technical and political levels,” the group said. “Trade ministers underlined the urgency for officials to engage intensively and on an ongoing basis.

“Senior negotiators must reconvene in Geneva as soon as possible to map out a clear path towards the conclusion of the negotiations, and to start down that path before the European summer break.”

The Cairns Group, a group of 19 exporting nations, accounts for over a quarter of the world’s ag exports and collectively presses for the liberalization of trade in same. Other members include Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Indonesia, Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, South Africa, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Malaysia, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Thailand, Pakistan and Uruguay.

An “ambitious and balanced outcome” to the Doha round would mean “substantial improvements” in ag market access, the Cairns communique said. It would lock in “significantly reduced” domestic support commitments, open up new export opportunities and reduce the level of distortions in international markets.

“This will benefit all agricultural producers, including low-income producers in developing countries,” as per one of the stated objectives of the Doha round. “And it will eliminate export subsidies once and for all.”

Reforms such as those the Cairns countries call for “will provide valuable insurance against the growing threat of protectionism, and will help move the international trading system closer to a level playing field,” the group wrote.

The recent reintroduction by the European Union and U.S. of export supports for their dairy sectors has “deepened” the risk of increased protectionism during this economic crisis, the group said.

“The EU and the U.S. must show leadership by removing these export subsidies in the shortest timeframe,” the Cairns countries reiterated. “Even measures that are applied within WTO commitments can still have a significant protectionist effect. We therefore urge WTO members to exercise the utmost restraint and not follow this example.”

“Not entirely comfortable”

Attending the Bali meeting were representatives of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, who said in a separate release Tuesday that the general farm association is “not entirely comfortable” with the language of the Cairns Group’s final communique.

CFA president Laurent Pellerin said the federation “had hoped for a more balanced approach,” adding that “Canada is conscious of its diverse needs within the agricultural community to gain further market access abroad while serving our domestic market within Canada.”

Such “diverse needs” would presumably include Canada’s system of supply management for dairy, eggs and poultry, which the federal government has repeatedly assured farm groups it would defend at WTO talks.

But the CFA said it couldn’t fully endorse the Cairns communique Tuesday as the wording “failed to echo the fair and equitable trade approach the CFA advocated for in the meeting, or recognize the need for continued improvements to the December 2008 (WTO) modalities text.”

Draft modalities texts, issued regularly during WTO ag talks, are an outline of the chairman’s assessment of what WTO member countries might agree to in formulas for cutting tariffs and trade-distorting agricultural subsidies.

“Although the latest December 2008 modalities on the Doha round showed some improvement in the right direction, the CFA sees an opportunity for greater improvement on that text,” Pellerin said Tuesday.

“The government of Canada’s trade position has traditionally been in alignment with that of the CFA and we continue to support the Canadian government and its negotiators in pushing for the adoption of this balanced position in this round of WTO negotiations.”

The objective of the Bali meeting, the CFA said, was “to reinforce key concerns within this forum and to ensure that agriculture maintains a strong position on the multilateral trade agenda.”

The CFA added that it was “disappointed” at the turnout in Bali, where representatives from only six of the 19 Cairns countries attended the meeting, including Canada, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Paraguay.

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