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G8 farm ministers look to curb food protectionism

CISON DI VALMARINO, Italy (Reuters) - Several farm ministers from the world’s most developed nations called on Sunday for an end to protectionism in agriculture, saying the best way to food security lay in better incentives for farmers.

A farmer works in a rice paddy field outside Hanoi April 6, 2009. REUTERS/Kham

Debate at the first meeting of farm ministers from G8 and G5 states has shifted towards options for improving food security and ways to raise output. But food protectionism, as exercised by both rich and poor countries in the form of export bans and import duties, has also been a subject of debate.

International organisations such as the World Food Programme have called for self-restraint in curbing exports, criticising export bans imposed by countries hit by rising prices which it says are impeding efforts to get food to the world’s neediest.

While richer countries are keen to protect their markets -- Russia, the largest importer of U.S. chickens, aims to become self-sufficient in poultry and pork in two years, for example -- many poorer countries reacted to 2008 spikes in food prices by slapping export bans on staple foods like rice and wheat.

“I think there have been strong messages to try and cut the head off ‘ugly’ protectionism,” European Agriculture Commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel said in an interview.

“It might even be counter-productive, and reinforce the difficulties that we have on food security because it could reduce the incentives for farmers to produce,” she said.

The meeting brings together the Group of Eight leading industrialised countries and ministers from Brazil, China, India, South Africa, Mexico, Argentina, Australia and Egypt.


A lone dissenting voice at the meeting, held in a hillside castle in northern Italy, came from its host, Italian Agriculture Minister Luca Zaia, who says he would not hesitate to use tariffs if Italy’s farming sector was threatened.

Fake “Italian-sounding” products damaged Italy’s food exports, worth about 24 billion euros a year, and market conditions put the survival of many Italian farmers at risk.

“If now we decided not to have import duties in the world any more, a great part of European agriculture ... would have disappeared because we are not competitive in meat, milk, cereals and flowers,” Zaia told a news conference.

“We are talking and we will talk about the (WTO) Doha round. But in my personal opinion, if the Doha round means to scrap import duties and starve our farmers, well: we are not here to attend a funeral of Italian agriculture,” he said.

Whether there will be any mention of food protectionism in the summit conclusions, expected on Monday, remains to be seen.

The document is expected to be vague, focusing on the need to increase development aid, find ways to raise food output, especially in the Third World, and at an affordable price for local consumers, officials and delegates say.

“In principle, we all agree that in the long term, protectionist mechanisms should be abolished, and also in the context of the WTO and the Doha round,” German Agriculture and Consumer Protection Minister Ilse Aigner said in an interview.

“I don’t think there’s any major disagreement on that.”

The conclusions may also mention the idea of global grain stocks as a “general concept” needing careful study but with no commitment to putting such a system into effect, officials said.

Additional reporting by Carlo Saccon and Svetlana Kovyalova