USDA is putting a new emphasis on expanding agricultural trade with foreign countries and growing exports, with a goal by Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to have his new undersecretary for trade be a member of the “million mile” club.
With visits to four countries in the last six weeks, Undersecretary Ted McKinney said he’s well on the way.
The objective is to remind trade partners “we are open for business,” and interested in business, exports and imports, McKinney told reporters on a conference call Dec. 1 from Panama City, where he was wrapping up a trade mission to Panama and Colombia.
It’s not by accident that the first four countries he’s visited, which also included India and Brazil, are not the biggest U.S. trade partners. USDA is employing a “no stone unturned” policy and “not leaving any country behind” in its efforts to increase agricultural trade, he said.
Highlighting his trip to Colombia and Panama, he said trade with those countries has flourished since the U.S. entered into free trade agreements with them in 2012. Colombia is the No. 1 U.S. export market for food and agriculture in the South America, and Panama is its third-largest consumer per capita worldwide.
Combined trade to Colombia in 2016 was $4.6 billion, with the U.S. exporting $2.4 billion. Combined trade to the smaller Panama was $726 million, with the U.S. exporting $670 million.
That activity is certainly paving the way for belief in and support of free trade, and he was taken aback by the affinity and respect for U.S. products in both countries, he said.
The trade mission included policy meetings, which were “very positive,” and frank discussions about the value of free trade.
“They’re pretty strong on free trade, and we heard that from government officials, we heard that from the buyers of our products. I think free trade agreements have been a good thing for all countries — the U.S., Colombia and Panama,” he said.
The intention is to continue to grow that trade both ways, he said, pointing out that the U.S. also benefits from imports of products it doesn’t produce such as coffee, bananas and mangoes.
Officials from both countries were interested in how they could get greater access to the U.S. USDA’s position is that once they follow the rules, the U.S. is open for business.
They have to go through the process with Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and Food Safety Inspection Service, and USDA is helping them make sure the rules are followed, he said.
Occasionally, the U.S. has to remind trade partners that “free trade doesn’t mean any trade.” Products have to be safe and high quality with standards equivalent to that of the U.S. That was not the case with Brazilian beef, resulting in the recent U.S. suspension of those beef imports, he said.
Brazilians were disappointed, but they also know it’s not a false barrier to free trade. His sense is that Brazil is going back to the drawing board to address the problems and Brazilian beef will be back in the U.S. at some point, he said.
“Nobody ever said free trade is an easy thing. To keep it free trade, we have to have the ongoing dialogue and exchanges so that we’re talking, always friendly and respectful … but also candidly and firmly so that we know the rules and we play by the rules,” he said.