International markets will keep us busy this summer

Betsy Ward

By Betsy Ward
President and CEO
USA Rice

I want to assure you that even though this column is going on hiatus for the summer, our work continues unabated. We will spend the summer as we do every season — finding and opening new markets, expanding opportunities in existing markets, and fighting threats to the U.S. industry here and abroad.

One threat we are facing is fallout from increasing trade tensions. The Trump Administration is, as promised, engaging in tough talk and actions on trade. As expected, our trading partners are not taking it lying down.

We have witnessed the Trans Pacific Partnership countries (without us) finalize the sweeping trade deal; we see Mexico take additional steps to further diversify their suppliers; and we are experiencing Chinese retaliation for non-agriculture tariffs President Trump has levied.

On this last one — the China question — rice actually can play an interesting role. As you know, we’ve been working for more than a decade to gain access to this enormous market. To be honest, 2018 felt like it was going to be the year.

The long-delayed phytosanitary agreement was finally signed last summer and we were confident we were in the end stages of the negotiations — the bottom of the ninth with two out and a full count on the batter.

But then the Chinese government had new questions about how we do things here, and they sent us a long and detailed questionnaire that put us into extra innings.

Extra innings

export shipments

Photo courtesy USA Rice

The USA Rice Millers’ Association navigated the questionnaire and through consultations with the U.S. government, we answered all the questions we could legally answer (some questions ventured into worker health, triggering privacy concerns), and transmitted those answers back to the Chinese government.

As of this writing, the next step is setting up inspections of U.S. facilities by Chinese authorities to confirm that the phytosanitary agreement is being adhered to — which it is.

Here is where U.S. rice could help the overall trade picture. If China were to begin importing U.S.-grown rice, which would be the next logical step, it could begin to tip the trade balance sheet back toward the United States.

Don’t get me wrong I know we’re not talking about true trade balancing figures — but every 100,000 metric tons helps. It helps us, it helps the nation and it helps the Chinese consumers, so why not?

We’ve communicated all of this to the U.S. government at the highest levels and they hear us. To continue my baseball metaphor, what are the Chinese going to do? Swing away, I hope.

Next batter up

Another market priority we have communicated to our government is Iraq. We have a precedent-setting memorandum of understanding, and we’ve had some sales success. We’ve also encountered road blocks. With the help of allies in Congress, the State Department and the Iraqi government, we’ve overcome those. But we do need more transparent and regular trade with Iraq — a major rice purchaser — and we are positioning ourselves as best we can to achieve this.

We are working to expand our access in Central America with increasing outreach and in Europe as well — where Brexit is presenting opportunities.

Those are just a few of the things my team and I will be working on while you are out in the field, tending the next crop and bringing it in.

I wish you all a good and productive summer, with the right weather, health and happiness, and a bountiful crop come fall that we can send to some of these places I’m talking about.