Siddiqui meets with industry leaders to discuss pending legislation
By DAN WHEAT
SELAH, Wash. -- Ambassador Isi Siddiqui, chief agricultural negotiator of the Office of U.S. Trade Representative, touted free trade agreements and President Barack Obama's jobs bill in Central Washington on Oct. 11.
Siddiqui met with 15 members of tree fruit, potato and hops industries in a closed-door lunch at Rainier Fruit Co. in Selah. The Northwest Horticultural Council, of Yakima, arranged the meeting which was followed by a press briefing.
The House and Senate were expected to vote on free trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama on Oct. 12. They will start taking effect Jan. 1 if passed.
If all three agreements are approved they will result in an estimated $2.3 billion increase in U.S. exports, creating 20,000 jobs, Siddiqui said.
Washington fresh fruit, vegetables, beef and wheat would be helped, he said.
Siddiqui was a USDA undersecretary in the Clinton administration after spending 28 years in the California Department of Food and Agriculture. Most recently he was a vice president at CropLife America.
While Siddiqui talked about Obama's jobs bill, discussion with the ag leaders focused on the trade agreements, said Chris Schlect, president of Northwest Horticultural Council.
The agreements were worked out by the Bush administration but were met with a cold shoulder by Democrats, who had labor and environmental concerns, when they took control of Congress in 2006, said Mark Powers, the council's vice president.
Those concerns have been worked out and Democratic support also was won by Republicans accepting trade adjustment assistance for workers and farmers hurt by free trade, Siddiqui said.
Ag commodity groups from pork to tree fruit have urged adoption of the agreements to reduce or eliminate tariffs.
Washington exported $15.7 million worth of cherries to South Korea in 2011 with a 24 percent tariff, Powers said. The Korean agreement would eliminate the tariff, which should allow that market to grow to $18 million to $20 million in the next couple of years, Powers said.
A 45 percent South Korean tariff on apples and pears would be eliminated over 10 years, which will help if phytosanitary barriers are dropped and U.S. apples and pears are allowed in, he said.
The agreement with Colombia would eliminate a 15 percent tariff on U.S. apples and pears, which would help Washington shippers competing with Chilean fruit there, Powers said. Washington exports about $6 million worth of apples and $3 million worth of pears to Colombia annually, he said.
Washington tree fruit growers have the most to gain in South Korea and Colombia, Powers said, because their populations are close to 50 million people each and Korea is a relatively wealthy nation.
Panama, with only 3.5 million people, is a smaller market with only a 1 percent tariff on cherries, 2 percent on apples and 3 percent on pears, he said. Those would be gone, which would help the $4 million in annual sales, he said.
Siddiqui offered more hope of gaining access for more U.S. apple varieties to China than any progress in reducing India's 45 percent tariff on U.S. apples, said Todd Fryhover, Washington Apple Commission president.
Rep. Doc Hastings, a Pasco Republican and chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, has long urged adoption of the agreements. In a July 1 letter to Obama, Hastings noted the European Union and Canada were gaining a competitive advantage over the U.S. by adopting free trade agreements with South Korea and Colombia, respectively.