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US moves to spur global trade talks

Nation willing to make concessions on farm subsidies

Protesters picket the Asian Development Bank headquarters outside Manila yesterday, to coincide with the two-day Aid for Trade Forum aimed at boosting trade for poorer countries. The protesters slammed trade policies of rich countries. Protesters picket the Asian Development Bank headquarters outside Manila yesterday, to coincide with the two-day Aid for Trade Forum aimed at boosting trade for poorer countries. The protesters slammed trade policies of rich countries. (Bullit Marquez/Associated Press)

GENEVA - The United States has signaled its willingness to limit trade-distorting farm subsidies to a level of between $13 billion and $16.4 billion, breathing life into struggling world trade talks, the World Trade Organization's lead farm trade negotiator said yesterday.

The negotiator, Crawford Falconer of New Zealand, said Washington made the move contingent on other countries accepting proposed cuts in agricultural tariffs. The United States has never said publicly it could accept a cap on payments to American farmers below around $23 billion.

"I thought it was very constructive," Falconer said at the WTO's Geneva headquarters, where he has been chairing intensive agriculture talks since the beginning of September.

Those talks aim at bridging differences between rich and poor nations over proposed subsidy and tariff cuts.

The question of rich countries' farm subsidies has been a major stumbling block in the WTO's six-year effort to liberalize world trade. Critics of the subsidies say they drive down prices, making it impossible for small farms to compete in international markets, and more difficult for poorer countries to develop their economies by selling produce abroad.

Several WTO diplomats present at the meeting confirmed that Joe Glauber, chief US farm trade negotiator, said Washington accepted the proposed subsidy range if other countries agreed to Falconer's plan for cutting tariffs on farm products.

Sean Spicer, spokesman for the US trade representative in Washington, said "the US will lead but others must step up to ensure" that significant new trade flows are created in agriculture, manufactured goods, and services.

Peter Power, spokesman for EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson, said he hoped Washington's move would spark other countries to offer concessions. "This shows that like the EU, the US has the will to negotiate and conclude the round successfully," he said from Brussels.

The global trade talks known as the Doha round aim to add billions of dollars to the world economy and lift millions of people out of poverty. But they have repeatedly stalled since their inception in Qatar's capital in 2001, largely because of wrangling over eliminating barriers to farm trade and, more recently, manufacturing trade.

Washington spent only $11 billion on trade-distorting subsidies last year. However, the Bush administration wants flexibility in the event that farmers need greater assistance because of declining global agricultural prices.

Many trade officials have doubted in recent weeks whether Washington can sell subsidy cuts to farm groups, which could play a key role in next year's presidential and congressional elections.

The Democrat-controlled House of Representatives recently passed a new five-year farm bill offering few changes in programs for major crops such as corn, cotton, rice, soybeans, and wheat.

But even some of the fiercest opponents of President Bush's trade policy yesterday acknowledged, with reservations, that a positive move had been made.

"I still want to hear what Congress says about that," Venezuelan Ambassador Oscar Carvallo said.

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