USTR's Vetter says delays in considering TPP may cost U.S. farmers

By Daniel Enoch

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ORLANDO, Fla., Jan. 10, 2016 - Darci Vetter, the top agricultural negotiator for the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, says the longer Congress waits to take action on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the greater the potential loss for U.S. exporters and for the country's farmers and ranchers.

During a press conference Sunday at the American Farm Bureau Federation convention in Orlando, Florida, a reporter noted that some members of Congress have suggested the trade pact is so politically fraught it may have to wait for consideration until the lame duck session following the November election or until after President Obama leaves office.

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Vetter pointed out that the U.S. was one of 12 Pacific Rim nations that shook hands on the TPP agreement in October, and that until the pact is confirmed by Congress, those countries are free to make bilateral deals, “creating preferential access we won't enjoy until we get to finish line.”

She noted that the U.S. beef exporters have been slowly taking back market share in Japan following restrictions placed on American products related to mad cow disease. Japanese importers, however, pay a 10 percent lower tariff on Australian beef the U.S. meat.

“On day one, when TPP takes effect, we're back to a level playing field with Australia,” she said, adding that a similar situation exists with U.S. dairy products and another TPP partner, Vietnam. With TPP, Vetter said, “every agricultural product was liberalized in some way.”

Vetter said she would not comment on the stances the different presidential candidates have taken on TPP, but she said the trade benefits of the agreement are obvious and “the numbers stand for themselves.”

But she said “knowing you have the full support of this administration” is good reason for TPP supporters in Congress to move quickly.

“If they know we're losing ground to other partners, why wait,” she said.

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Vetter was also asked whether a plan under consideration at USDA that would provide new subsidies for cotton growers, who are dealing with a sharp decline in prices, might run afoul of an agreement the U.S. has with Brazil to cut back on government support. Under the cotton growers' plan, USDA would allow cottonseed to qualify as an oilseed under the new Price Loss Coverage and Agriculture Risk Coverage programs that were created by the 2014 farm bill. 

Vetter said that although the National Cotton Council has introduced the plan to USTR, “at this point we are not in active consultation with USDA.” She said the role of USTR would be to provide technical assistance to see if the plan is consistent with international trade obligations.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack last week said he would decide “very soon” whether to provide the new subsidies, but he suggested that the industry's proposal may lack legal authority

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