US Farm Group Rejects Trade Deal

Original Publication Date: 
14 January, 2004

Published: January 15 2004 20:04 | Last Updated: January 15 2004 20:04

The largest US farm group has shifted its stance on international trade negotiations, voting to support further trade deals only if they do not damage import-sensitive commodities in the US.

The American Farm Bureau, at its annual meeting in Hawaii this week, voted by a narrow 204-202 margin to endorse a new stance in which the group would only support future trade agreements 'that prevent economic damage to import-sensitive commodities . . . while advancing US agricultural trade and food security interests'.

The decision, which caused the chairman of the Indiana branch of the farm bureau to charge that 'we are turning into Europeans', is the latest sign of waning enthusiasm for trade deals among US farmers who have historically been strong advocates of trade liberalisation.

While growers of import-sensitive products such as sugar, fruits and vegetables have significant political influence in Washington, in the past they have been outweighed by growers of exported commodities such as wheat, corn, rice and soyabeans.

The sugar industry warned on Thursday in a letter to President George W. Bush that it would 'strongly oppose' a new free trade agreement with Central America unless the US withdrew its offer to increase sugar imports from the region.

The industry said the deal would set a precedent 'that would lead to a totally unmanageable level of imports into the US'.

Farm Bureau officials sought to play down the significance of the new policy on import-sensitive goods, noting that the group also endorsed language calling for all commodities to be on the table in all trade negotiations.

But it will complicate efforts by Robert Zoellick, US trade representative, to revive the Doha round of global trade negotiations. In a letter to World Trade Organisation trade ministers earlier this week, Mr Zoellick said that progress in reducing agricultural subsidies and cutting tariffs 'is essential for this negotiation to proceed and succeed'.

Washington may be able to draw on some public support in the effort. An opinion poll released yesterday indicated that the US public would support cutting subsidies to big US farmers. About 65 per cent of US farm subsidies go to the largest 10 per cent of farms.

Only 31 per cent of Americans favour subsidies for big farmers, though 77 per cent support subsidies for smaller farms, according to a PIPA / Knowledge Networks poll at the University of Maryland.

But the poll showed general public support for the arguments in favour of farm subsidies, with majorities saying that subsidies help to keep food prices low, help to ensure higher quality US-grown food, and assist US farmers to compete internationally.