As senior vice president of public policy for the United Fresh Produce Association, Robert Guenther represents the fruit and vegetable industry before Congress, the presidential administration and national regulatory industries. He has more than 30 years of experience representing specialty crops in the nation’s capital.
Guenther recently shared with Agri-Pulse the top items on the United Fresh agenda for 2020.
The conversation has been edited for brevity.
1. What were your thoughts as 2019 wrapped up?
It's funny watching Congress. They don't do a whole lot, and then in the last two or three weeks everything gets done. It's like college kids cramming for their finals.
I’ve reflected back on where we are today. Even three or four months ago, we were somewhat pessimistic of getting some of our major agenda items through at least part of the Congress going into 2020.
The vote on the immigration bill in the House and the (U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement) are two of our biggest issues we focused on in 2019. The third was Child Nutrition. That's one of our banner issues: How we can get access to fresh fruits and vegetables in schools. Federal nutrition programs with the Child Nutrition Reauthorization is one of those vehicles. We hope the Senate and the House will conclude that in 2020, but we'll see what happens.
A fourth issue we're going to be spending a fair amount of time on is food safety. It’s not from the standpoint of how we're going to fix problems. Obviously, there are going to continue to be outbreaks and it's unfortunate. We're confident our industry is using the best science available to make sure the products are healthy and safe for consumers, but we're still going to have these outbreaks.
How do we address them when we have an FDA who is now posting advisories and not recalls? How can we help an industry that has nothing to do with the outbreak get over these tough times? In 2018, the FDA said don’t eat romaine from anywhere in the country. In 2019, it said don't eat romaine from Salinas, even though they had several companies identified as part of this. There are a lot of folks out there who are struggling in the marketplace.
We’re talking with Congress and the administration on how there can be some policies and tools in place that could help protect these growers when they're not part of this and they're losing the market. It's beyond just risk management and creating a crop insurance type of tool. We've gone through that before, but it's not going to be the answer for this. This is going to be a much broader discussion.
Immigration is something we should not take for granted. The House (vote on the Farm Workforce Modernization Act) was an important monumental step. We've gone through this routine a number of times, mostly starting in the Senate and the House rejecting any kind of Senate strategy or bills.
It wasn't a majority of Republicans, but certainly the 34 who voted for this bill represented a broad cross section of people who support agriculture and specialty crops. We hope that sends a good message to the Senate. That'll be another heavy lift for us.
2. What is your perspective on trade and USMCA?
It can't be citrus, potatoes and apples doing our own thing. We need to look at policy from a much broader perspective, in terms of how we can change the way our negotiators look at trade negotiations from a specialty crop and holistic point of view – not just commodity by commodity, where there's winners and losers.
That's something we've got to talk about more broadly as an industry and get beyond the commodity-specific regional issues we've always had.
We can't let the administration and others define success in trade policy by countries buying a lot of pork, grain and soybeans. That's just one sector.
3. Can you describe the approach of the Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance?
It really started as a fruit and vegetable discussion. Then it broadened to include the nursery and landscape industry, the wine industry, the tree nut industry. As we progressed in our strategy on farm bills – 2002 and 2008 – we knew we needed a much broader group of folks to help influence members of Congress to have a broader impact on farm bills.
It needs to start within the family first. I don't know if it's necessarily a Specialty Crop Farm Alliance one-off. But our industry needs to sit down and have a discussion about this.
This isn't just about increasing exports. It's also helping growers who are having challenges competing with imports.
…For over 20 years now, trade has always been done by each commodity. For the last several years with some of the trade challenges we’ve had, it was on autopilot. It has dawned on us that we need to look at trade policy in a more holistic point of view. And that's going to be tough. There's a mindset out there of having turf battles and pitting people against each other.
We look at issues through multiple commodities and regions, even up and down the supply chain: growers, wholesale distributors, fresh cut and all the way to retail. The issues we spend the most time are those that crosscut commodities but also up and down the distribution chain from grower to consumer.
There's a sense out there that we're in the lower tier of trade negotiations.
4. Which export markets are seeing a buildup right now?
Everybody's looking at India right now.
The issues there are with (sanitary and phytosanitary standards), and there are some tariffs right now. And there needs to be a middle-class economy with purchasing power.
5. Are you seeing more international competition?
With (the loss of the China market), there are other countries who are picking up the slack, in terms of apples, pears, cherries, citrus. A lot of folks are nervous that it won't just happen overnight and will take a while to build that market back up, since it's been going on so long.
6. What is the approach of United Fresh to pest and disease issues?
With citrus greening, we're finding it in Texas and California and there’s still no solution for that. We're spending a lot more time in that space as well, especially on the research side.
That's where the Farm Bill has been very helpful to us, in having the Specialty Crop Research Initiative, for instance, focusing on some of these issues. (The Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research) is also focusing on a few of our priorities. That's going to continue to grow in terms of priorities related to finding solutions and even food safety. In 20 or 30 years from now, there might not be a kill step to address some of these issues related to food safety.
7. What’s next for the trade deal with China?
The devils are in the details. We need to see this phase one deal and what it includes. We hope this is just the first start of a continued negotiation with China that can bring finality to this trade war. We need to give certainty to agriculture, especially to the fruit vegetable industry for those markets opening back up.