The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative announced Thursday that the U.S. and Kenya will begin developing closer ties under a deal that would improve agricultural trade by addressing non-tariff trade barriers.

The Biden administration continues to weather criticism that it isn’t negotiating traditional tariff-slashing market access agreements in pacts such as the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework. At least initially, that will be the case for the United States-Kenya Strategic Trade and Investment Partnership that USTR Katherine Tai and Kenyan Minister of Industry, Trade and Enterprise Development Betty Maina announced Thursday.

The U.S. and Kenya “will consider measures to facilitate agricultural trade and enhance transparency and understanding of the application of science- and risk-based sanitary and phytosanitary measures,” the Office of the USTR said in a statement.

While the USA Rice Federation says it’s pleased with the announcement, U.S. exporters very much need Kenya and other African countries to reduce tariffs. U.S. rice exports face a 35% ad valorem tariff – about $200 per metric ton – in Kenya.

“USA Rice is glad to see USTR furthering the relationship with Kenya, but market access has to be on the table to make a real difference for us. U.S. rice exporters will need to have significantly reduced duties if we hope to ever be competitive in the market,” Peter Bachmann, vice president of international trade policy for USA Rice, tells Agri-Pulse.

One of the biggest divisions between U.S. and Kenya on ag policy is biotechnology, and senior administration officials told reporters Thursday that the countries will be addressing the issue under the Partnership deal.

Kenya is slowly approving the planting of genetically modified seeds, but continues to maintain a 2012 ban on imports of food and feed produced with the technology.

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“Kenya’s GE ban has blocked both U.S. government food aid and U.S. agricultural exports derived from agricultural biotechnology,” the USTR said in its 2022 Foreign Trade Barriers report.

When the Trump administration announced in 2020 that it intended to negotiate a free trade agreement with Kenya, hopes were high that Kenya could be convinced to drop its import ban, which might set an example for other African countries.

Now, a senior administration official says the U.S. will be taking on the same “impediment to trade,” stressing that “we hope to have lots of detailed conversations on science-based standards going forward."

Nevertheless, lawmakers and farm groups are still pushing the Biden administration to change course and begin negotiating traditional market access deals in free trade agreements.

Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., and 20 other lawmakers today sent a letter to Doug McKalip, President Joe Biden’s nominee to be the next chief agricultural negotiator at USTR, asking him to advocate for new free trade agreements.

“Our farmers and ranchers are facing uncertain times due to the immense pressure of an exponential increase in input costs,” the wrote. “Greater access to international markets for products we export would help alleviate some of that pressure.”

A senior administration official told reporters that while no market access components are being considered for the Kenya deal, that could change.

“We haven’t ruled out doing more comprehensive negotiations," the official said.

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