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Published March 14, 2011, 04:20 AM

Vilsack urges adoption of trade agreement

WASHINGTON — Citing the importance of agriculture exports, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is urging Congress to ratify the U.S.-South Korea agreement before July 1, when a European Union-South Korean free trade agreement goes into effect.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Special to Agweek

WASHINGTON — Citing the importance of agriculture exports, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is urging Congress to ratify the U.S.-South Korea agreement before July 1, when a European Union-South Korean free trade agreement goes into effect.

The U.S.-South Korea agreement would expand farm exports to South Korea by $1.8 billion and support thousands of jobs in the United States, Vilsack said in a media call March 8, while helping to put U.S. agriculture ahead of competitors in Asia and strengthen strategic alliances there.

“Congress must move swiftly to ratify the U.S.-Korea Trade Agreement, because if we do not act quickly and decisively, America’s competitors will secure their own trade deals with Korea, and our competitors’ products will achieve an advantage at the expense of American productivity,” Vilsack said.

President Obama should be sending the agreement to Capitol Hill shortly, Vilsack said. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., through whose committee the agreement must move, has said he is not inclined to support the agreement, but Vilsack said he does not think there is time for any more negotiations with South Korea before Congress considers the measure.

Weighing in

Describing the agreement as “more important than the last nine trade agreements” the United States has signed, Vilsack noted that Obama walked away from an initial agreement and did not sign it until South Korea made more concessions.

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association thinks Congress should pass the agreement, a spokesman said. The National Farmers Union usually is suspicious of trade agreements, but lobbyist Chandler Goule has said the membership will consider supporting this one.

In a news release, Vilsack said the United States provided almost 30 percent of South Korea’s total agricultural imports in 2010 and totaled nearly $5 billion in fiscal year 2010, making South Korea the fifth largest export market for U.S. farm products.

The U.S. share of the South Korean import market has fallen from 21 percent to 9 percent in a little more than 10 years, Vilsack said, and there is potential for farm exports to grow dramatically. The agreement, he noted, immediately would eliminate duties on the majority of U.S. farm products exported to Korea, including wheat, corn and soybeans for crushing, and make more than 90 percent of pork exports duty-free by 2016.

Additional goods

Other products that would see their duties eliminated immediately are whey for feed use, hides and skins, cotton, cherries, pistachios, almonds, orange juice, grape juice and wine.

It still would take 15 years to fully eliminate South Korea’s 40 percent tariff on U.S. beef. But Vilsack noted that South Korea is negotiating an agreement with Australia, a competitor for the South Korean beef market, which may allow tariff cuts for Australian beef to take effect before those on U.S. beef if ratification of the U.S.-South Korea agreement is delayed, he said.

Beef has been a sore point between the United States and South Korea since the first case of mad cow disease was discovered in the United States in 2003. Korea banned U.S. beef and has been slow to reopen the market, insisting on taking meat only from younger animals. U.S. beef exports to South Korea doubled last year, however.

Republican leaders have said Obama also should send the free trade agreements the United States has negotiated with Colombia and Panama to Capitol Hill along with the South Korean agreement. Vilsack said South Korea should go first but that he and Obama want the other agreements to move as quickly as possible.

“We need to get these agreements done as quickly as possible. We do not have the luxury of waiting until the stars are aligned perfectly. Our competitors want us to delay so that they can establish their own presence in the market,” Vilsack concluded.

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