Japanese consumers are seeking high-quality agricultural products, and more than 40 U.S. agricultural businesses and 11 state departments of agriculture had the opportunity to build key relationships during a USDA agricultural trade mission this week.

Speaking to reporters Thursday morning upon returning, USDA Undersecretary for Trade Alexis Taylor said Japan is an “old and consistent and reliable trading partner” as the country has imported more than $10 billion worth of U.S. food and agricultural exports in each of the past 20 years, including last year’s record $14.6 billion.

“These trade missions are a key part of our strategy to continue to expand our export picture in the United States,” she said. “Exports are critical to the profitability of our food and agricultural sectors. We are highly productive in the United States. We create really high-quality, high-value products that are desired all over the world, and Japan is a great market example of that.”

The trade agreement with Japan was updated in 2019, and Taylor said roughly 90% of all U.S. food and ag exports are within that trade agreement that has tariffs at zero or phasing down to zero.

“We do have great market access there, but that in and of itself does not get you actual exports. So, I think that’s why we prioritized this trade mission to Japan,” she said.

While on the ground in Japan, Taylor said U.S. officials continued a positive, collaborative relationship with the Government of Japan to work through differences on additional market access requests.

Taylor reported “positive discussions” on market access for U.S. potatoes and said USDA will “continue to engage and make progress” on the technical issues on pest risks and mitigation measures of pests of concern. USDA’s trade mission couldn’t have come at a better time for U.S. potato growers, following up on a May bipartisan letter signed by 35 House and Senate members asking for USDA assistance in opening up the Japanese market to U.S. fresh potatoes.

Japan is a significant market for U.S. frozen potatoes, but no fresh potatoes are allowed as Japan has delayed approvals and ignored the industry’s most recent request for Japan to provide a Pest Risk Assessment. Market access for fresh U.S. potatoes to Japan has the potential of reaching $150 million per year, according to the letter.

Idaho State Department of Agriculture Director Chanel Tewalt was also on the trade mission, as were representatives from the Idaho Potato Commission. Taylor said Japan is a priority market for many potato-producing states, and the issue is also a priority from USDA’s perspective. She was “very optimistic” that continued progress can be made on this issue.

Taylor also spent time with Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) on increasing the inclusion rate of U.S. ethanol into its fuel sector. METI recently revised the U.S. corn ethanol carbon intensity score to allow U.S. ethanol full access to Japan's entire bioethanol market.

The U.S. Grains Council reports that “as of 2023, this new market opportunity is worth 217 million gallons of U.S. ethanol annually with an approximate value of $434 million.” USGC was on the trade mission, and Taylor said as one of USDA’s cooperators in the region, USGC “set up meetings with key officials to continue to promote U.S. ethanol in the market and continue to engage with government officials on the additional benefits that increasing ethanol use in on-road vehicle fleets can have to supporting climate goals of Japan.”

Taylor said she heard positive feedback from those who were on the trade mission and USDA’s success in arranging 427 business-to-business meetings. “Trade inherently is still about relationships,” she said, adding that sales don’t always occur during the trade mission but can happen after future discussions. She anticipates millions of dollars of sales announced in the upcoming weeks and months. 

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Participants in the trade mission, Taylor said, stand to benefit from “some of the market intelligence that we were able to gather and see firsthand, whether that be in store tours or in various meetings.” She described Japanese consumers as “discerning” and on the lookout for high-quality products.

"[Japanese buyers] really gravitate towards products that have health or wellness attributes. They also look for a compelling story,” Taylor said as they were interested in the stories of farmers, ranchers or food processors.

As an example, Indiana State Department of Agriculture Director Don Lamb said he was able to have conversations with buyers in Japan who were interested in liquid egg products from a company in his state.

“Just to have that connection where you shake someone’s hand, meet them and then you know the producers at home that are making that product personally as well,” Lamb said. “The best part of this trip was seeing the reality of those negotiations make a difference.”

Nancy McBrady, conservation and forestry deputy commissioner in the Maine Department of Agriculture, shared Maine already exports its frozen and dried wild blueberries to Japan and used this trade mission to educate Japanese consumers about its specialty beverages, notably a dry sparkling wild blueberry wine.

McBrady, who joined USDA's call from Japan, said Japanese consumers have “high standards, expectations about quality, stories about farmers, packaging and size. These are things that we believe wild blueberries and our value-added products will hit out of the park.”

USDA is planning other trade missions this year to Chile, Malaysia and Angola. 

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