Pork exports

Pork and other meat exports to China have increased under the Phase One agreement, but that deal expires at the end of the year.

U.S. meat and poultry exports have grown from $7.4 billion to $20.7 billion a year in the past two decades, and those exports relative to U.S. production have increased from about 6% to more than 13%.

But to protect that progress, the U.S. needs to get back to the negotiating table and become part of trade agreements around the world, an economist said in a new report.

Those gains were made through the North American Free Trade Agreement, the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and the World Trade Organization Agreement on Agriculture and were supported by administrations dating back to Ronald Reagan.

“However, for more than a decade, free trade has become decidedly less popular in the U.S. Unfortunately for U.S. meat exporters, the rest of the world continues to make headway on trade agreements that threaten to put U.S. producers at a disadvantage in global markets,” according to the report by CoBank.

“Trade policy remains a vital component to building consistent and reliable export markets, and the U.S. needs to be at the negotiating table as new trade developments unfold,” said Brian Earnest, lead protein economist at CoBank and author of the report.

The Trump administration’s harder line on trade, continued by the Biden administration, has led to mixed results for U.S. agriculture.

“Exports to China have flourished under the Phase One agreement, but the U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership cost U.S. exporters some opportunities,” he said.

The Phase One agreement expires at the end of the year, and there’s a fair degree of uncertainty about what will happen next, he said.

Between 2002 and 2012, China’s purchases of U.S. meat and poultry rose more than tenfold to $26 billion, with China becoming the top export market during that period. But during the Trump trade war, those exports collapsed to $9 billion in 2018, he said.

Since the implementation of the Phase One agreement, China has become a top destination for U.S. meat and poultry. African swine fever in China also played a role, with China’s total pork imports skyrocketing from 1.5 million metric tons in 2017 to 5.3 million metric tons in 2019.

But with China rebuilding its domestic herd, the best market opportunities for the U.S. might already have passed, he said.

“It is increasingly important for U.S. meat exports to seek more global opportunity,” he said.

That is especially true if top protein-exporting nations join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership and the U.S. is not a member, he said.

“With more than half of all global protein trade headed for East Asia, fair and open access to the markets of the region is a significant opportunity for protein exports,” he said.

But the U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and absence from its replacement put the U.S. at a disadvantage versus its main competitors to destinations such as Japan and Vietnam, he said.

“As competitors look to bolster their export volume, the U.S. must be at the negotiating table,” he said.

From opening trade to Cuba to exporting broiler paws to China, diversification of markets and products is vital for a vibrant U.S. protein export trade. Successful trade also depends on maintaining commitments with long-established partners such as Mexico, Canada and Japan, he said.

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