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Published April 19, 2010, 01:13 PM

Merrigan, trade officials to put more emphasis on organic exports

WASHINGTON — In a dramatic shift in trade policy from the Bush administration, three Obama administration agriculture and trade officials appeared at an Organic Trade Council meeting to assure the industry they will do everything they can to increase organic food exports.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Special to Agweek

WASHINGTON — In a dramatic shift in trade policy from the Bush administration, three Obama administration agriculture and trade officials appeared at an Organic Trade Council meeting to assure the industry they will do everything they can to increase organic food exports.

Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan, who wrote the organic standards act when she was an aide to then-Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., told the group April 14 that she has directed the Foreign Agricultural Service to work with the Agricultural Marketing Service and the National Organic Program to promote sales of U.S. organic foods.

“We need to ask more of FAS in overseas operations,” Merrigan said.

One longtime FAS civil servant confirmed that emphasizing organics would be a change. In the Bush years, the civil servant said, FAS placed great emphasis on convincing other countries to accept genetically modified seeds and foods from them while little emphasis was placed on promoting organic foods even though the demand has been growing.

Proceeding with care

Agriculture Deputy Undersecretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services Darci Vetter, said April 15 that USDA does not have official statistics on organic exports because the U.S. government has not had specific tariff codes for organic products, but that the administration is in the process of introducing them.

Vetter, who has worked for Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., and at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, but was introduced by her father, an organic farmer from Marquette, Neb., noted that the Obama administration had concluded the first organic food equivalency agreement with a foreign country, Canada, and that the agreement has eased trade. She said the administration would pursue further agreements, but would be careful about them to make sure that any organic imports meet U.S. standards.

“We will choose our future equivalency partners very carefully,” Vetter said. “We will insist that foreign regulations impose the level of rigor that is required under the National Organic Program, and we will only recognize as equivalent those programs that clearly demonstrate similar requirements and strong credible oversight of their programs.”

A bright future

Vetter also said the industry faces particularly complex problems in the international marketplace because organic verification must be imposed on top of all other food safety standards. But she also said she sees a bright future for organic exports because there is so much global demand.

Assistant U.S. Trade Representative Jim Murphy, whose office negotiated the equivalency agreement with Canada, said April 15 that Japan, China, Chile, South Korea and the European Union have all made inquiries about reaching an organic equivalency agreement with the United States. Speaking of President Obama’s National Export Initiative and commitment to doubling U.S. exports in five years, Murphy said that organic exports are small, but their potential for increase is better than agriculture overall.

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