Bitter move over sugar

By Country News

Australia has referred India to the World Trade Organisation over heavy subsidies paid to cane farmers, creating an international sugar glut affecting thousands of Australian farmers.

But Trade Minister Simon Birmingham has acknowledged the action — which will prompt discussions on the issue through the WTO — could take a long time to be resolved.

‘‘It may end up taking some time and I know that the representatives of cane growers and sugar millers understand that,’’ Senator Birmingham said on Friday.

‘‘They have been urging us to take this step and we’ve been listening very carefully to them.

‘‘Ultimately this is about trying to ensure we get a fair go for our sugar farmers who play by the rules and they just want to be able to compete.’’

The action, known formally as a counter notification, comes after Australia has repeatedly raised the issue with India directly.

It means the issue will initially be discussed at the WTO’s Committee on Agriculture meeting scheduled for later this month.

Senator Birmingham said he hoped the move would change India’s mind.

‘‘We really do hope that India will reconsider its position in relation to what are more than $1billion in additional subsidies for sugar producers, which has pushed global sugar prices to a decade low.’’

Canegrowers chairman Paul Schembri said although the step did not resolve the subsidies, the government should be commended for flagging the issue at the highest global level.

‘‘It takes the very real difficulties of Australian farmers into an international forum and places further pressure on the Indian government to change its sugar policies,’’ Mr Schembri said.

Senator Birmingham dismissed concerns the step could hamper Australia’s efforts to ramp up trade with India.

‘‘We’re confident that we can do both.’’