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WTO seeks successor for Doha ag talk chairman

By JERRY HAGSTROM

A World Trade Organization official confirmed today the departure of David Walker, the New Zealand ambassador who has been serving as chairman of the agriculture negotiating committee in the Doha round, and said that the WTO is looking for a new agriculture chairman.

“The General Council chairperson, Ambassador Yonov Frederick Agah of Nigeria, will hold consultations on a successor,” the WTO official said in an email to The Hagstrom Report. WTO chairs are formally elected by the bodies they chair.

The New Zealand government summoned Walker home on Monday amid signals that New Zealand Trade Minister Tim Groser had lost faith in the round, Radio New Zealand reported. The round, which was launched in Doha, Qatar, in 2001, has gone on for a decade without conclusion, and WTO Director General Pascal Lamy has suggested that negotiators consider a smaller agreement that would avoid some of the contentious issues.

U.S. negotiators have been insisting on more market access for American farm products, particularly in fast-growing developing countries such as China and Brazil, while developing country negotiators have focused on protecting their farmers from imports and a special deal for West African cotton growers, who have contended that U.S. cotton subsidies have hurt them. When the round began, overproduction and low prices caused by subsidies in the developed countries were seen as key issues, but today demand is outstripping supply even in cotton, and prices are at historically high levels.

The WTO official downplayed Walker’s departure by pointing out that the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade had announced last September that Walker would become a deputy secretary for the Americas, Asia, the Middle East and Africa. That announcement said that Walker would assume that appointment after Easter 2011, but Walker had remained in Geneva trying to convince agriculture negotiators to reach agreement on contentious issues.

A New Zealand Embassy official in Washington referred inquiries to the ministry, but the ministry website did not appear to have any statement on Walker’s return to New Zealand.

Walker was the third New Zealand ambassador to the WTO in a row to chair the agriculture talks. Groser held both posts from 2003 to 2005, and returned to New Zealand to enter politics and became trade minister. Crawford Falconer held it from 2005 to 2009, and returned home to become a deputy secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Ken Roberts, a former U.S. Foreign Agriculture Service officer who served in Geneva, now with Kraft Foods in Washington, noted the New Zealand contribution to the cause of free trade in his reaction to Walker’s depature.

“David did a superb job undertaking this seemingly impossible task and is the most recent Kiwi to have contributed enormously to the WTO cause of ag reform and a more open trading system,” Roberts said in an email.

“Following the contributions of Tim Groser and Crawford Falconer, David added his own unique mark as chairman,” Roberts said. “We are grateful for his disciplined and creative approach which enhanced understanding among all members of the challenges and opportunities ahead. As we tip our hat to this extraordinarily talented trade diplomat, we hope others will step up in reassessing the situation. New Zealand can be justly proud of the legacy David and his countrymen have established in pursuing the Doha negotiations, regardless the eventual outcome.”

Roberts said he would defer any comment on a new chairman or the future of the round, but added, “It’s increasingly clear to me that there is a lot of good which will be lost if round folds.”

American Farm Bureau Federation trade lobbyist Dave Salmonsen said he did not see any particular significance for the Doha round by Walker’s leaving to take on a new assignment. “This has happened before with Groser and Falconer leaving as ag chairs,” he said.

Clayton Yeutter and Susan Schwab, both former Republican U.S. trade representatives, said recently they believe the Doha round should be allowed to die so that the WTO can move on to a new agenda.

One prominent commodity lobby said in an email that the phrase dead as a dodo bird could be replaced by “dead as Doha.”