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INTERNATIONAL Trade Commission hears testimony on wheat spat


WASHINGTON (AP) _ Members of Congress went before the International Trade Commission on Wednesday to slam Canada's wheat trading practices as unfair, predatory and in violation of free trade agreements.

The commission is conducting an inquiry into a complaint from North Dakota wheat farmers, who allege that the Canadian Wheat Board is a state-run monopoly with an unwritten policy of underselling American wheat even at a loss. The complaints go back a decade.

``For 10 years these family farmers have been victimized by unfair trade, and I must say that our federal government's response has been pathetic, really pathetic,'' said Sen. Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat and a critic of free trade policies.

The trade commission will report its findings to U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick. He must then decide whether to impose trade tariffs on Canadian wheat sold in the United States or take other punitive action against Canada.

Members of Congress including Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D.; and Sens. Kent Conrad, D-N.D.; Larry Craig, R-Idaho; and Conrad Burns, Republican, and Max Baucus, Democrat, both from Montana, joined Dorgan before the ITC in recommending action.

The Canadian Wheat Board ranks among the world's largest wheat marketing organizations with 110,000 wheat farmers in Western Canada and annual revenues of $4 billion to $6 billion.

Spokesman Justin Kohlman denied the allegations.

``This essentially borders on harassment,'' Kohlman said. ``They just continue to rehash the same arguments, in an attempt to apply political pressure.''

Conrad testified that the Canadians are taking advantage of loopholes in NAFTA and the initial agreement that NAFTA replaced, the U.S.-Canada Free Trade Agreement.

``Before the trade agreement, the U.S. imported virtually no wheat from Canada. None,'' Conrad said. ``But we've seen a pattern here where they have gone from zero percent to 20 or 25 percent of our durum wheat market after the free trade agreement.''

Wheat Board spokesman Kohlman denied that charge. He said American pasta makers, for example, are buying up Canadian-grown durum because it is more consistent and a better quality than American-grown wheat.

``Our only reason for being is to sell grain for as much as we can, so we're selling at market prices or above,'' he said.

Rep. Pomeroy said the federal government, and particularly Zoellick, have an obligation to help the North Dakota farmers. He suggested that forcing Canada to dismantle the Canadian Wheat Board.

``It's an ugly, old-fashioned and illegal monopoly,'' Pomeroy said.

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