U.S. WTO offer causes worry back home

Bet you didn't know you were willing to give up more than half your farm program payments so the United States could get an agreement in the Doha Round of the WTO negotiations?

U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman recently announced the U.S. government was willing to cut farm subsidies by more than half and eliminate export subsidies by 2010 to try to get the stalled Doha Round talks back on track.

The announcement came after Sen. Saxby Chambliss and Rep. Bob Goodlatte, the chairmen of the Senate and House agriculture committees, specifically asked Portman not to negotiate away farm program provisions that are the responsibility of Congress ahead of the Dec. 14 WTO ministerial meeting in Hong Kong.

Portman did say that any reductions in U.S. subsidies must be matched by increased access to foreign markets and lower subsidies in other countries. But those comments were lost in headlines reporting that the U.S. trade representative had offered to cut U.S. domestic farm subsidies in response to a similar offer by the European Union.

That's been a major worry of U.S. farm organizations throughout the negotiations: The United States would trade away its farm program provisions and receive little increased market access in return.

In a letter to Portman in advance of the Oct. 10 WTO meetings in Zurich, Switzerland, Chambliss and Goodlatte urged him to reject “unbalanced and unreasonable” European Union proposals that would reduce U.S. farm support while creating few trading opportunities for U.S. producers.

“My support for an agreement in Hong Kong will be measured against priorities we have stated on behalf of farmers in the United States,” said Chambliss. “A successful WTO agreement is important, but it also must follow through on the promises of additional market access and a stable and predictable trade environment.

“Without these assurances, I cannot support reductions in our domestic support programs.”

Many farmers would second Chambliss' comments, but farm organization leaders worry that, in a rush to get a new trade agreement — and reduce spending — the administration and other Republican leaders in Congress could allow the Doha Round talks to become a de facto farm bill, one written by foreign governments rather than Congress.

And they are troubled by comments like these by Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns in a recent speech: “There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that we can show tremendous support of agriculture without trade-distorting subsidies. I am confident that America's farmers and ranchers can compete with any farmer or rancher in the world if given a fair opportunity.”

European farmers are also concerned about EU proposals to phase out its subsidies. Agricultural ministers from 13 of the European Union's 25 member countries signed a memorandum requiring its negotiators to consult with them before offering concessions in the Doha talks.

U.S. farm organizations may need to sign a similar memorandum asking Portman to consult with Congress before he makes any more offers to cut farmers' livelihoods.

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