(March 14) Talks to liberalize agricultural trade in the Doha Round of the World Trade Organization negotiations aren’t going smoothly, and that is raising concerns among produce industry leaders that Japan and Europe could dash hopes for major gains in market access for fruits and vegetables.

Many observers believe negotiators won’t meet a looming March 31 deadline to finalize the framework for agricultural trade liberalization. Some call into question whether the Doha Round will be finished by 2007, well past the target date of early 2005.

In mid-February WTO chairman Stuart Harbinson distributed a first draft of agricultural modalities for the WTO, but his report has drawn critics from all sides. Harbinson had hoped to receive clear instructions from WTO members on what should be the framework for agricultural negotiations.

Now, members are reportedly planning for extended negotiations up until the September Cancun ministerial meeting.

The modalities — setting out the scope of the negotiations, the methodology to be followed during the process and the results expected — were supposed to be finalized by the end of March.

Mike Stuart, president of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, Orlando, said the disagreement over the Harbinson paper came from primarily three groups of nations.

The reformist camp, including the U.S. and the Cairns Group of countries — which includes Australia and Canada — sought a process that would achieve parity among agricultural tariffs around the world and then ultimately would lower all tariffs.

Europe and Japan favor the status quo, or go-slow approach. That view offers only an aggregate target for tariff reduction, and allows countries to construct tariff reductions among various commodities in any manner they wish to meet their target, much like the results of the Uruguay Round.

For their part, Stuart said developing countries have said they want access to developed countries markets, but want to give relatively little access to their own.

Stuart said that Harbinson is expected to release another draft of his paper on agricultural modalities by the end of March, but he said there appeared to be little softening in negotiating positions.

Difficulty in dealing with agricultural trade also caused delays in completion of the Uruguay Round, Stuart noted.

Produce industry observers say the Bush administration is pursuing bilateral trade deals vigorously even as it looks for progress in the WTO.

In the months following congressional approval of trade promotion authority, free trade agreement negotiations were completed with Chile and Singapore, and the Bush administration started negotiations with Central America, Southern Africa countries, Morocco and Australia — in addition to pushing forward talks on the Free Trade Area of the Americas.
Stuart said the bilateral trade deals have been mostly a one way street, favoring imports, and Kam Quarles, Washington, D.C.-based government affairs director for Sunkist Growers Inc., shared that sentiment.

“There is a growing concern in the industry about the direction of the trade policy agenda,” he said.

For example, the Chilean-U.S. Free Trade Agreements provides Chilean suppliers with more than 230 million consumers, but gives American suppliers the equivalent of Los Angeles County.

While the Bush administration believes that bilateral trade deals will increase the likelihood of success on the Doha Round, he said the worst outcome would be bilateral trade deals that don’t give American farmers any new customers at the same time the Doha Round of the WTO talks bog down in the face of European and Japanese resistance.

If there is nothing accomplished at the WTO for specialty crops at the same time there is tremendous competitive pressure from bilateral and regional trade deals, Quarles said it would only deepen the distress of the industry.

“If the WTO doesn’t achieve market access in significant consumer markets overseas — Europe, Japan, and Korea — we are gong to be in a lot of trouble,” Quarles said.

Stuart said industry support for free trade talks — from all states, not just Florida — is hanging in the balance. “Unless the trade folks can turn this thing around, what support they have had for their aggressive trade agenda is going to continue to disintegrate,” he said.