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Agriculture service chief: Foreign deals need fast-track rule

by Glen Chase | February 24, 2015 at 2:06 a.m.

The chief of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Foreign Agricultural Service on Monday said it is critical for Congress to grant the Obama administration fast-track authority to negotiate foreign trade deals.

Philip Karsting was in Little Rock meeting with farmers and representatives of agricultural groups and producers about the need for U.S. negotiators to be able to finalize the details of trade agreements, called trade promotion authority.

"One of the underlying factors in all of these negotiations is that we want to create an environment for global trade where there is an adherence to sound science and that we have some transparency and predictability in our trading relationships," Karsting said in an interview.

Allowing fast-track negotiating will allow Congress to identify its priorities while allowing for an up or down vote at the end of the process, he said. He said negotiators for other countries in trade talks are watching how Congress and President Barack Obama's administration handle the authority issue, which he said is needed to strengthen the position of U.S. negotiators.

Karsting, the agency's administrator since 2013, said the U.S. must help direct the conversation to develop trade rules that include meaningful commercial access.

"Or do we sit back and let other people drive that conversation?" he said. "The president has been very clear he wants us to drive that conversation."

The Department of Agriculture's Foreign Agricultural Service works to maintain and expand U.S. access to foreign markets as well as push for rules that create accountability and predictability for agricultural trade. It also tracks information about agriculture in other countries, including production, marketing and trade policies.

Legislation dealing with giving the president fast-track negotiating authority has yet to be introduced in Congress.

Talks are underway on two trade deals: the Trans-Pacific Partnership, involving the U.S. and 11 countries, including Australia, Japan, Canada and Mexico; and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the European Union.

While some Arkansas-based agriculture and business groups want the Obama administration to have the authority, others want limits on what trade negotiators can do. If granted wider permission to negotiate trade deals, the administration would present Congress with a pact on which it could only vote up or down. The state's congressional delegation has mixed feelings about granting fast-track authority.

U.S. Sen. John Boozman, a Republican from Rogers, said earlier this year that a trade deal will only be approved if the president has the authority to negotiate it without the threat of Congress amending it. U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, a Republican from Dardanelle, said he is worried about giving the executive branch blanket power to negotiate and would want to include restrictions on what the trade deal could include.

Karsting said agricultural exports are important to U.S. agriculture as consumers worldwide have confidence in the safety and quality of meat, grains and vegetables grown by U.S. farmers.

In 2013, principal field crops in Arkansas -- including rice, cotton, soybeans and corn -- were valued about $5 billion, according to the Agriculture Department.

The department estimated the state exported $4 billion in agricultural products in 2013 -- a portion of the record $152.5 billion in U.S. agricultural exports in the 2014 fiscal year.

Arkansas, the nation's largest rice producer, exported rice valued at $907 million. It also exported soybeans valued at $949 million, soybean meal worth $240 million and cotton valued at $362 million. The state also exported broiler meat worth $646 million.

Karsting said agriculture is part of many issues being discussed during negotiations and that every state has an interest in global trade. In addition to growers, agricultural trade involves processors, shippers and other industries that get products to market.

"One of my goals here is to make sure that a broader swath of people understand the importance of these negotiations and the importance of agricultural exports to their daily lives," he said.

Business on 02/24/2015

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