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Mon, Jan 13, 2003 - Page 12 News List

European, Asian farmers promote subsidy concept

INTERNATIONAL TRADE Food producers from the two regions don't always harmonize on the issues, but growers in the EU and Asia believe aid is a must


Asian farmers, among the poorest in the world, understand their European colleagues' hunger for subsidies -- but not at the expense of fair trade for their own produce.

And they are determined to make their case ahead of WTO talks on the sensitive issue next month.

Three lobby groups representing more than 260 million farmers in the EU and Asia came together last week for their first organized exchange of views in the run-up to next month's WTO meeting.

Delegates to the two-day meeting in Brussels, which ended Friday, agreed that farming was not just a trade issue but was vital to the lifeblood of any society.

But lavish subsidies under the EU's Common Agricultural Policy unfairly skew world trade in food, according to Raul Montemayor, the Philippine president of the Asian Farmers' Group for Cooperation (AFGC).

The Brussels meeting would help tackle Asian prejudices that European farmers are the "bad boys" of world trade, as the subsidies did play a role in safeguarding food security and livelihoods, he told reporters after the talks.

"But they should do it in a way that will not harm farmers in countries like in Asia, where the farmers are usually small-scale [and] have very little support from their governments," Montemayor said.

Subsidies in the rich world drove down prices of produce in the developing world and sent many poorer farmers into bankruptcy, he said, calling for a "win-win" solution for all sides.

"We are trying to look for a formula where farmers in Europe can continue with the kind of system that they have, which may include such subsidies, but in such a way that this does not result in harm to farmers in Asia, for example."

The question is daunting: how to reconcile the needs of a grandmother in Vietnam bent double sowing rice seeds with those of an EU farmer employing state-of-the-art machinery on vast fields of grain.

But, the lobby groups argued, farmers in both regions share a desire to protect their food supplies and rural ways of life.

Isami Miyata of Japan's Central Union of Agricultural Cooperatives stressed the WTO should respect the "multifunctionality" of farming. Agriculture was too special to be treated like cars or financial services in the liberalisation debate.

Many Japanese rice farmers, long protected by a myriad of regulations, were now feeling the pinch from foreign imports, Miyata complained.

Observers, however, have pointed to a glut in supply and a shift in the Japanese diet towards Western staples like bread and potatoes as being equally to blame for the plight of Japan's rice farmers.

And, free-trade advocates argue, liberalization can transform the fortunes of a desperately poor country. Vietnam has gone from food shortages to being the world's second largest rice exporter in little more than a decade.

Japan is scheduled to host an informal WTO meeting on Feb. 10 and Feb. 11 in Tokyo, as the Geneva-based WTO battles to meet a March 31 deadline for an accord on a framework to free up farm trade -- the most sensitive liberalization issue of all.

Several EU and Asian governments, notably France and Japan, want to make agriculture a special case in the WTO negotiations which they say should be exempt from full liberalisation.

But critics argue that the most effective weapon against grinding poverty in the developing world is a level playing field in agriculture, which in Europe, the US and Japan remains heavily protected. The EU last month proposed to transform poor nations' access to its farming markets in the WTO talks, but was accused by British aid charity Oxfam of producing a "vacuous public relations document."

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