Obama administration to pursue organic trade alongside biotech crops
By JERRY HAGSTROM
For the Capital Press
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- In a dramatic shift in trade policy from the Bush administration, three Obama administration agriculture and trade officials went to an Organic Trade Association meeting this month to assure the industry they will do everything they can to increase organic food exports.
Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan, who wrote the organic standards act when she was an aide to then-Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., told the group on April 14, that she has directed the Foreign Agricultural Service to work with the Agricultural Marketing Service and the National Organic Program to promote sales of U.S. organic foods.
"We need to ask more of FAS in overseas operations," Merrigan said.
One longtime FAS civil servant confirmed that emphasizing organics would be a change. In the Bush years, the civil servant said, FAS placed great emphasis on convincing other countries to accept genetically modified seeds and foods from them while little emphasis was placed on promoting organic foods. The new emphasis on organics does not mean FAS will diminish its efforts on genetically modified crops, however, because Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has committed himself to promoting biotechnology.
Agriculture Deputy Undersecretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services Darci Vetter, said April 15 that USDA does not have official statistics on organic exports because the U.S. government has not had specific tariff codes for organic products, but that the administration is in the process of introducing them.
Using industry data, USDA has estimated that in 2009, U.S. organic food production was valued at $27.6 billion, of which $1.7 billion was exported. Total ag exports were valued at more than $96 billion in 2009.
Vetter noted that the Obama administration had concluded the first organic food equivalency agreement with a foreign country, Canada, and that the agreement has made it easier for U.S. and Canadian producers to sell their products across the borders. She said the administration would pursue further agreements, but would be careful about them to make sure that any organic imports meet U.S. standards.
Vetter also said the industry faces particularly complex problems in the international marketplace because organic verification must be imposed on top of all other food safety standards. But she also said she sees a bright future for organic exports because there is so much global demand.
Assistant U.S. Trade Representative Jim Murphy, whose office negotiated the equivalency agreement with Canada, said April 15 that Japan, China, Chile, South Korea and the European Union have all made inquiries about reaching an organic equivalency agreement with the United States.
Murphy said that organic exports are small but their potential for increase is better than agriculture overall.