Rice groups critical of U.S.-Korean FTA

To say that U.S. rice producer groups are upset about their crop being left out of the recently concluded U.S.-South Korea Free Trade Agreement would be an understatement. Livid is the more operative term.

Leaders of the U.S. Rice Producers Association and USA Rice Federation, the two groups representing U.S. rice farmers, tried to show restraint, but the comments they made after the announcement of the Korean FTA on April 2 had an edge.

“This is a bad precedent for all future free trade agreements,” said Carl Brothers, senior vice president at Riceland Foods and chairman of USA Rice’s International Trade Policy Committee. “Monday’s decision by the administration to agree to the exclusion of rice in the Korea agreement will likely encourage other countries to expect similar treatment.”

“Monday’s action is the latest example of the importance of the farm safety net for U.S. agriculture,” said U.S. Rice Producers Association Chairman Dan Gertson, a Texas rice producer. “Denying market access benefits to crops like rice is antithetical to free trade agreements. U.S. agriculture deserved better.”

Rice farmers weren’t alone in their unhappiness over the agreement. Cattlemen expressed their displeasure over Korea’s refusal to reopen its markets to U.S. beef in the FTA. U.S. automakers also said the agreement didn’t do enough to allow more U.S. cars into the country. (Korea ships one-fourth of the autos it makes to the United States.)

American Farm Bureau President Bob Stallman said his organization would not support passage of the Korean FTA until new World Organization for Animal Health-based guidelines for the sale of U.S. beef to South Korea are in place.

“We appreciate the efforts of the U.S. Trade Representative in advocating the interests of U.S. agriculture,” said Stallman. “Yet, we remain cautious on the final beef outcome and will closely monitor the actions of Korea and its regulatory process over the next 90 days.”

Reports said U.S. negotiators seemed more focused on winning an agreement that could be presented to Congress before President Bush’s trade promotion authority expires in July than on listening to U.S. farm and automaker groups. TPA requires Congress vote such agreements up or down without discussion or amendment.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson’s criticism was more pointed. “The lack of progress on gains for American beef and rice trade in the United States-Korea Free Trade Agreement causes me to question the deal’s overall benefits,” Peterson said in a statement released by the committee.

“Despite all indications U.S. beef poses no health threat, the Korean government continues to block our imports, and after 10 months of negotiations, the interests of American rice producers were discarded entirely. If failure to reach a satisfactory outcome on such major issues is the best we can expect from significant bilateral trade agreements, American agriculture is left to wonder if these negotiations are worth the effort at all.”

Press reports said the agreement was being hailed in Seoul as a major victory for lame-duck President Roh Moo-hyun, whose popularity ratings in South Korea — just over 20 percent — are lower than those of President Bush in this country.

Some observers said they saw the agreement as vital if South Korea, Asia’s third largest economy, was to become competitive and grow. But opposition parties said they would remember any presidential candidates and members of the National Assembly who support the ratification of the agreement in the next elections.

In the United States, Sen. Max Baucus, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said he would block the agreement until South Korea lifts its ban on U.S. beef immediately.

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