By David Lawder
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -More than 50 U.S. agriculture and food groups on Thursday urged Congress to approve new legislation enabling the United States to negotiate more free-trade agreements, arguing that without them American agriculture was falling behind global competitors.
The groups, representing a wide variety of U.S. agricultural exports from corn to dairy, meat, fresh produce and other products, said efforts by President Joe Biden’s administration to open new agriculture export markets were insufficient to overcome the growing network of free-trade deals forged by the European Union, China and other countries.
“Regrettably, America is falling badly behind. Between 2010 and 2020, China and the European Union enjoyed over twice as much advantage from trade agreement tariff reductions as the U.S.,” the groups wrote.
The groups said it has been over a decade since a new free trade deal was signed that opens new markets to U.S. farm and food products.
They cited a recent Department of Agriculture forecast that the U.S. is poised to become a net food importer in 2023, with an expected food trade deficit of $14.5 billion.
“This should be a wake-up call regarding America’s declining economic influence in the world due to our failure to advance new tariff reducing trade agreements,” they wrote, asking lawmakers to pass legislation for new Trade Promotion Authority.
TPA, or “fast track” negotiating authority, sets out priorities for trade deals and allows the U.S. Trade Representative’s office to negotiate and execute them with only an up-or-down vote by Congress. TPA was last used to renegotiate a new North American trade agreement implemented in 2020, but the authority expired in July 2021.
The Biden administration has indicated no interest in renewing TPA or negotiating new comprehensive free trade agreements with tariff reductions. Instead, U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai has sought more limited trade agreements focused on labor, environmental and digital trade standards, such as the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, and industry-specific deals with the European Union on steel and aluminum and aircraft.
Such efforts “can be highly constructive” if they address specific non-tariff barriers to trade such as on food safety, the groups said, but they added the U.S. should pursue “new tariff-reducing free trade agreements.”
The letter from the National Corn Growers Association, the International Dairy Foods Association, the North American Meat Institute and others comes as Tai starts her third year in office, and expresses a level of frustration among exporters about access to new markets.
The China-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership trade deal in Asia came into force last year, five years after the Trump administration pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, which includes many of the same countries. The group said this has helped China displace the United States as the EU’s biggest trading partner.
BEEF, SHELLFISH ACCESS
But the U.S. Trade Representative’s office maintains that it is working to open new markets for U.S. agricultural goods, saying in a fact sheet on Wednesday that in the past year it has increased opportunities for U.S. beef exports to Pakistan, reopened U.S. shellfish exports to the European Union after a 10-year hiatus, expanded export access for U.S. potatoes to Mexico and secured a 70% cut in Indian tariffs on U.S. pecans.
USTR is also pursuing trade dispute cases over dairy access to Canada and genetically modified corn access to Mexico.
USTR announced on Thursday that it will hold an initial round of negotiations toward a strategic trade and investment partnership agreement with Kenya that will include an agricultural component, as well as chapters on labor and regulatory practices, environmental standards and digital trade.