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Trade Rep. Builds Support for U.S. Food Aid at WTO

Trade Representative Building Support for U.S. Food Aid at WTO

Portman testifies against proposals to convert all food aid to cash

By Bruce Odessey
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington -- U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman says he expects some developing countries and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) will support continuation of U.S. food aid programs that have come under pressure in World Trade Organization (WTO) negotiations.

In September 21 testimony before the Senate Agriculture Committee, Portman said he believes the United States can assemble a coalition to offset demands from the European Union (EU), Switzerland, Australia and other food-exporting countries to convert all food aid into cash.

At issue are U.S. programs such as Food for Peace, which in part provides for the donation of U.S. agricultural commodities by the U.S. government to meet humanitarian food needs in foreign countries.

Portman argued that all-cash food aid, such as the EU now employs, often ends up filling the pockets of corrupt officials instead of the stomachs of hungry people.

"I think there's plenty of evidence of that," Portman said. "There is still a significant concern on our part of corruption and the need to get this food to people who need it quickly."

He asserted that U.S. donation of agricultural commodities does not displace commercial food sales and that now the world needs much in the way of emergency food supplies.

"The last thing we want to do is cut back on emergency food aid when we need it," he said.

Portman said he expects he can line up support from African and other developing countries, as well as from NGOs that support the U.S. food aid programs as they are.

Food aid is only one of the issues in the long-stalled WTO negotiations. Since their launch four years ago, by most accounts, the negotiations have made little progress except for a framework agreement on the difficult agriculture issues worked out in July 2004. (See related article.)

And since July 2004, Portman said, the negotiations have made little progress. Nevertheless, he expressed hope that the parties will move forward before a crucial WTO ministerial meeting in Hong Kong in December.

"I am hopeful that we can still come together -- not with a final product at Hong Kong; that will not happen, and we ought not to have those expectations -- but with the kind of formulas and the kind of modalities ... that enable us to make progress in 2006," he said.

Portman’s goal is to complete WTO negotiations by the end of 2006 to present a negotiated agreement to Congress in early 2007 for consideration before trade promotion authority (TPA, otherwise known as fast track), expires in July 2007.

Under TPA, Congress restricts itself to approving or rejecting a negotiated trade agreement, within strict time limits and without amendments.

The U.S. objectives in the agriculture negotiations are for better market access, especially lower tariffs in developing countries; elimination of export subsidies by a set deadline; and sharp reduction of domestic payments to farmers.

Portman's prepared testimony can be accessed on the Agriculture Committee's Web site as can the testimony of Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns.

For more information on U.S. participation in the global body dealing with the rules of trade between nations, see USA and the WTO.

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