The Biden administration is not letting up pressure on Mexico to resume its approvals of genetically modified crops and is continuing to formulate its next steps in addressing the precarious trade relationship with China, U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai told Agri-Pulse in a wide-ranging interview Wednesday.

Mexico has not approved a new ag biotech trait since May of 2018, creating a bottleneck that is now blocking 23 traits in apples, canola, corn, soybeans and potatoes.

Tai said she raised her concerns directly with Mexican Agriculture Secretary Victor Villalobos and Mexican Economy Secretary Tatiana Clouthier during her trip to Mexico City last month because she knows how important the issue is to U.S. farmers.

Tai said it’s still unclear how much headway she’ll be able to make in convincing Mexico to reverse its reluctance to issue approvals, but she also lauded Mexican officials for their willingness to discuss the issue.

“We’re working this issue and it’s helpful to have partners that are strong communicators in Mexico City,” she said Wednesday. “We will continue to push.”

As for the U.S. biotech sector, Biotechnology Innovation Organization President and CEO Michelle McMurry-Heath told members of the Senate Finance Committee that her industry is losing patience.

“Mexico’s failure to perform scientific regulatory assessments in over three years, its disregard for due process and transparency, and its decree to arbitrarily ban key technologies is a direct violation of both the letter and spirit of USMCA and commitments to the WTO,” she said.

When it comes to the Biden administration’s plan for how to tackle the future of the U.S.-China trade relationship, that’s still up in the air, said Tai.

Tai stressed that she takes the U.S. trade relationship with China “extremely seriously,” and her department is watching closely how China is living up to its commitments under the “phase one” trade pact as USTR conducts a top-to-bottom review.

“I hear you on the importance of the market and the anxieties around the reliance we have on that market,” she said, but stressed the administration is still calculating how it will proceed.

“That’s going to be our job – to figure out our strategies for engaging with China and holding them accountable for the promises they made.”

The U.S. and China last year signed “phase one” – formally known as the Economic and Trade Agreement Between the Government of the United States of America and the Government of the People’s Republic of China – and China agreed to boost its imports of U.S. ag commodities and make policy changes to improve the country’s market access for U.S. commodities like beef, pork and dairy.

The USDA’s Economic Research Service recently increased its forecast for U.S. ag exports to China to a record $35 billion due to the unprecedented pace of U.S. shipments of soybeans, corn, tree nuts, beef, wheat, and poultry products.

“China is forecast to remain the largest market for U.S. agricultural exports in FY 2021, followed by Canada and Mexico,” ERS said.

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Meanwhile, the Biden administration continues to review the negotiations for free trade agreements that the Trump administration began with the UK and Kenya, Tai said.

The Trump administration began talks with the UK in May 2020, but British officials said that those negotiations were idled after the November election and Trump’s loss. Government officials told Agri-Pulse that no agreements on controversial agricultural issues were settled during the five rounds of FTA talks that were conducted before the election.

Key to resuming those talks with the UK and Kenya will likely be the appointment of a chief U.S. agriculture negotiator – a deputy USTR level position. The Biden administration has not yet named a person for the job, but Tai told Agri-Pulse that she wants the position filled “as soon as possible.”

Tai says it’s a vital role that will help keep her connected to the ag community.

“This is an absolute priority for me, just as I know it’s a priority for farm country,” she said.

But another priority – and one of Tai’s favorite parts of her new job, she said – is getting out of the office and meeting with American workers and farmers, people who she says “make up the human face of our economy.”

Tai made a recent trip to Wisconsin and met with dairy and other farmers. It was just part of her effort, she said, to “build connections and relationships with our communities and our workers and farmers in America.”

Tai, a USTR spokesman said, is scheduled to meet with farmers and ranchers in Washington state Thursday.

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