Trade talks in Nara, Japan, have barley started yet U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman is already responding to negative comments about the U.S. Farm Bill from other countries’ top farm ministers.

The jibes have been about the increase in subsidies paid to U.S. producers included in the new Farm Bill. European Union farm commissioner Franz Fischler said the 67 percent increase in U.S. subsides doesn’t sit well at a time when other countries are moving toward lowering trade barriers. “This Farm Bill will increase rather than reduce trade distortion,” Fischler said in a speech in Tokyo.

Fischler is not alone in his thinking. Australian Agriculture Minister Warren Truss and his Japanese counterpart, Tsutomu Takebe, have voiced similar concerns. They are disappointed that the U.S. has not taken a leadership role in reducing government support to farmers.

However, the U.S. contends the increase of crop and dairy subsidies of $6.4 billion annually is needed to help U.S. producers compete with unfair foreign competition.

Veneman has dismissed the notion that the U.S. Farm Bill contradicts what is trying to be achieved in the WTO negotiations.

"It doesn't run counter because it stays within our WTO limits as we currently have them and it in no way, despite criticisms to the contrary, increases any protection," said Veneman to Reuters. "I think most of the criticism we've gotten on the Farm Bill is unfounded and it's actually misstated in many ways, in terms of what people have said that the farm bill does."

The Nara meeting is the first ministerial gathering on agriculture since the World Trade Organization launched a new round of trade talks last November in Doha, Qatar.

Japan’s Takebe will host Veneman, Fischler, Truss and Canada's Lyle Vanclief in discussions they hope will lay the ground work for the next stage of WTO negotiations. The group has until March to reach a broad outline on farm liberalization.

Reuters