Trade conference highlights winter of discontent, hope for spring

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RICMOND—Speakers’ remarks evoked a mix of hope and frustration at the 11th annual Virginia Governor’s Conference on Agricultural Trade. The event was held March 5 in Richmond and drew more than 300 participants, including representatives from 15 foreign embassies.

Gov. Ralph Northam made brief luncheon remarks, reporting that, as of November 2018, Virginia farm and forestry exports for the year were valued at $2.7 billion, which represents a 16 percent increase over exports for all of 2017.

He added that agricultural and forestry exports account for more than half of containerized cargo moving through The Port of Virginia, and that in 2018 the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services helped more than 290 companies with their international marketing efforts.

Zhu Hong, minister for commercial affairs at the Chinese embassy, expressed hope that trade tensions between the U.S. and China will be amicably resolved, emphasizing, “We need to get back to normal.”

He noted that China is not able to provide all the foods its citizens need or desire, because many parts of the country’s open land is not arable. Growing demand for protein foods poses an additional challenge. On a basic level, Zhu said, “we are feeding one-fifth of the world population with only 7 percent of the world’s arable land.”

Chinese and U.S. negotiators are engaged in talks to end a trade war and retaliatory tariffs, and Zhu said he is “personally optimistic that the trade dispute will finally get resolved” adding that “Chinese people need Virginia pork products, Virginia poultry, Virginia corn, Virginia soybeans” and other commodities.

China was the second-largest market for Virginia ag exports in 2017, with the state’s exports to China valued at $1.72 billion.

Ambassador Gregg Doud, chief U.S. agriculture negotiator, said, “It isn’t that we’re trying to impose our will on other countries” like China with tariffs, but “if we’re going to trade roughly the same amount of product back and forth, the tariff has to be the same” for both players.

He also said the Chinese market should be open to many more U.S. products at which China historically has balked. “Yes, they buy soybeans, but look at all the other things that we ought to be able to sell to China. … They’re already importing it from other countries.”

Updates on trade relations between the U.S. and the European Union, as well on the as the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, were part of the conference agenda as well.

Assessing trade disruptions over the past year, two commodity association officials said a second disrupted year will be even more trying for producers.

“It’s going to be a difficult year,” said Maria Zieba, director of international affairs for the National Pork Producers Council. She said that organization is focusing on broadening the global market for U.S. pork.

“We actually export more to the 20 countries with which we have a free trade agreement than to the rest of the world,” Zieba said, adding later that the council “would love to have a free trade agreement with the Japanese.”

Bret Davis, secretary of the American Soybean Association, told conference participants that every third row of soybeans grown in the U.S. was exported to China until recently. The past year has been a reminder, he said, “that you can’t put all your eggs in one basket.”

Fair trade conditions will be key in resolving the dispute with China, Davis said, but the nation’s soybean growers need an agreement that will last. “We’ve got basically four year of carryover (surplus soybeans) sitting here in the United States that we need to get rid of.”

Media: Contact Pam Wiley, VFBF communications, at 804-290-1128.

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