Japan defends its protection of farming sector

May 9, 2002

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DATELINE: TOKYO

Japan on Thursday defended its policy of keeping agriculture products off limits during negotiations to set up free trade agreements, saying the country needs to boost its food self-sufficiency and protect its farmers.

Tokyo has recently shifted focus from reaching trade deals under the umbrella of the World Trade Organization to seeking pacts with individual nations.

Last year, Japan established its first free trade agreement with Singapore, and plans to start talks soon with Mexico and South Korea. There is just one obstacle: Tokyo's habit of coddling its farmers. "Our producers are working hard," Tatsuya Kajishima, a senior Agriculture Ministry Official told a news conference on Thursday. "We need to provide consumers with cheap, safe, fresh products grown at home. That's our policy."

The free trade agreement with Singapore was relatively easy, as the tiny island city-state has no major agricultural products of its own. Still, Japan refused to close on the deal until Singapore agreed that its goldfish and cut flower exports would not benefit from the free trade deal.

Kajishima said Japan could not afford to set precedents that would go against its farming policy.

"If we give in to one country, others will say 'why don't you do the same for us?"' he said.

Japan wants to boost the nation's food self-sufficiency from 40 percent to 45 percent, a key rationale for its high agricultural tariffs.

The government also says it needs to keep a cap on imports as it implements an agricultural restructuring program aimed at weaning farmers off small plots and bringing in modern and efficient big farming.

Despite skepticism that Mexico and South Korea would agree to a free trade agreement that excluded agriculture, Kajishima remained optimistic.

"If they say OK then we have a deal," he said. If not, "we have to see what they say and overcome their objections."

Copyright 2002 Associated Press AP Worldstream

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