Secretary for Commerce, Industry and Technology, John Tsang Chun-wah, never imagined he would have to learn so much, so fast, about farming. Although he presides over a customs territory with few surviving rice paddies, for much of the past year Hong Kong's de facto trade minister has been on a crash course on agriculture and agricultural trade. He has pondered the plight of impoverished farmers across the developing world; puzzled over the Byzantine and extremely expensive government support systems that protect their much luckier counterparts in the United States and the European Union; and prayed for a miracle by which the gap between these parallel agricultural universes might be bridged. 'I didn't start to learn about agriculture until this year,' Mr Tsang said this week to the South China Morning Post. '[Hong Kong] imports everything it eats. We have no agriculture.' Mr Tsang owes his newfound fascination for the good earth and its fruits to the biggest party he will ever throw. In December, as host minister of the World Trade Organisation's sixth ministerial conference, he will chair and 'break kneecaps' at the do-or-die negotiations that will determine the fate of the Doha Development Round and, arguably, the WTO. In a crucial development yesterday, the EU offered to reduce tariffs on agricultural exports by an average of 48 per cent and eliminate farm export subsidies, although it did not specify a timetable for either concession. The EU's trade commissioner, Peter Mandelson, was responding to an earlier offer by the US to scrap its agricultural export subsidies within five years and cut farm support programmes by more than half. Launched in November 2001, the Doha round's primary mission is to demonstrate to deeply sceptical developing nations that they too can benefit from the WTO's raison de etre - the steady expansion of free trade across the globe. Agriculture is essential to this endeavour. 'We want to do some good for the least developed countries,' Mr Tsang said, noting that many depended on a handful - or in some cases just one - agricultural export. Access to developed markets in North America and Europe can make or break poor economies in Asia, Africa and Central and South America, which cannot afford to subsidise their own farmers. They also feel threatened at home by the US and EU's export subsidies. If a comprehensive agreement on agriculture is not reached in Hong Kong, developing countries will not buy into the WTO's agenda and refuse to open their own markets to the developed world's products and services. Highlighting agriculture's centrality to Doha, the WTO chose a brown chicken egg as the round's official symbol. The fragility that implies could not be more apt. Prodded by WTO director-general Pascal Lamy, trade ministers from the organisation's 148 member states and customs territories (the latter include Hong Kong and Taiwan) were supposed to agree on the outline of an agreement - or an 'approximation' as it is known in WTO-speak - as early as July. They failed to deliver, principally because the so-called Group of 20 developing nations led by India, Brazil and China felt the US and EU had not gone far enough on agriculture. Making a bad situation worse, talks on other crucial sectors were halted pending a breakthrough on agriculture. Like school children starting their homework far too late in the day, WTO members entered October still stalled. Mr Tsang sweated bullets. The deadline could not be more real. US President George Bush's 'fast-track' authority to negotiate trade agreements expires in 2007 and is unlikely to be renewed by Congress. It will also take a year for WTO members to incorporate the terms of any agreement into their legal codes, putting the Hong Kong conference right on the knife edge. 'Even if the modalities [of a deal] are agreed in Hong Kong, they need a year to be legalised,' Mr Tsang said. 'Between then and now we don't have a lot of time.' US Trade Representative Robert Portman finally broke the impasse on October 10. His offer impressed many, including Mr Tsang, and wrong-footed the EU. 'People generally recognise that the US offer was a good one,' Mr Tsang said, speaking on the eve of the EU's counter-offer. 'It requires a robust response from the EU. The EU holds the key and it's time for the EU to turn that key. I'm feeling a bit queasy right now, but hopefully Mandelson can make my day.' In a statement last night, Mr Tsang said he needed time to study the details of Mr Mandelson's response, but added: 'I am encouraged. Peter Mandelson has worked hard and I recognise his efforts. It is a step forward and the ball is still in play.' In recent weeks, Mr Mandelson's room for manoeuvre has been badly constrained by dissenters from within, led by France. On Thursday, French President Jacques Chirac said he would rather scupper the Doha round than agree to further cuts to Europe's common agricultural policy, which was last amended in 2003. As the Post went to press, it was still not clear if France felt Mr Mandelson had gone too far and would veto his offer. Mr Chirac's threat is not being taken lightly by most. France's president is a former minister of agriculture and rural development who cut his teeth arguing with, bribing and cajoling the country's pugnacious and politically powerful farm lobby. 'It explains a lot,' one French official said of Mr Chirac's two-year tenure (1972-74) at the Ministry of Agriculture. It was his first big job in French politics and he quickly established himself as a champion of the rural class and was extremely popular among farmers. But others are more sanguine and see France's brinkmanship as a necessary bit of theatre. 'Politicians in France are not unhappy with this state of affairs - it has an enormous political pay-off,' Michel Camdessus said in an interview this week, during a flying visit to Hong Kong. As a Frenchman, the former managing director of the International Monetary Fund and Friend of Africa (he advises Mr Chirac and British Prime Minister Tony Blair on African development policies), Mr Camdessus has a unique perspective on the Doha round. 'All the players are playing games and keeping their cards close to their chests,' he added, saying WTO members' apparently successful effort to isolate and embarrass the EU and France was a common negotiating tactic. 'It is crystal clear agricultural subsidies must go down - all of them. The basic thing is, we will get an agreement. The EU is not at all in a position to maintain agricultural subsidies [at current levels]', especially after its embrace of poorer members from central and eastern Europe. 'French farmers already know this regime is near to its end.' With just seven weeks to go, Mr Tsang is running hard. Between now and the conference's opening on December 13, he will travel to the Caribbean, Tanzania, South Korea for an Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation summit and to WTO headquarters in Geneva. Mr Tsang says that as an economy with no agricultural sector to speak of, Hong Kong is 'the perfect honest broker' in whom WTO members with much more at stake can confide their 'bottom lines'. While the jockeying intensifies, Mr Tsang is confident that the Doha round will be revived, not buried, in Hong Kong. 'We'll have a deal,' he said.