U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said Wednesday he is planning on officially starting negotiations with Japan next month for a bilateral free trade agreement.

“We can start the actual negotiating,” Lighthizer said while testifying at a House Ways And Means Committee hearing. “We feel a real urgency because of the combination of market access from TPP and Europe … And it’s going to have a real effect on our farmers.”

U.S. agriculture groups have been clamoring for a trade pact with Japan, a major importer of beef, pork, wheat and other commodities, ever since President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a Pacific Rim trade deal that included Japan. That pact recently came into force without the U.S., prompting Japan to lower ag tariffs, but not for U.S. exporters.

“We now have a situation where Europe has a deal with Japan, and Canada and Australia have deals with Japan that have kicked in as part of TPP,” USTR Chief Agricultural Negotiator Gregg Doud told reporters today. “We’ve got to get back to even with our competitors in that market. This is a really, really important market for U.S. agriculture. In terms of meat, it’s our best market.”

U.S. exporters of cheese, whey, lactose and skim milk powder are already preparing to lose market share in Japan to European and TPP countries, Tom Vilsack, president and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council, told Agri-Pulse in a recent interview. He predicted the U.S. dairy industry would lose billions of dollars in lost sales so long as the U.S. is at a disadvantage.

“It’s great that we’re opening up those trade negotiations with Japan — a great market not just for agriculture, but for a lot of American businesses,” Delaware Agriculture Secretary Mike Scuse told Agri-Pulse.

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