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By Elizabeth Westendorf, USW Policy Specialist

Last week, USDA announced Food for Progress funding allocations for fiscal year 2016. A total of $153.2 million in funding will go to projects in eight countries that USDA estimates will reach over 3.8 million beneficiaries.

Half of the countries on the list (Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Malawi, and Mozambique) are in Africa, where this Food for Progress funding will not only enable development projects in these countries, but will also raise money for those projects by providing U.S. commodities for sale in the local markets. All four of these countries are experiencing severe droughts that have hurt domestic food production. The monetized commodities through Food for Progress supplement locally produced food supplies that are currently not sufficient to fully meet their populations’ needs. They also provide economic stimulus to encourage continued development that can lead to more resilience in future food crises.

Studies show a strong positive correlation between food insecurity and political instability. When it seems like instability around the world is rising and there are more crises demanding U.S. foreign assistance, these food aid programs are more important than ever.

The United States is the largest provider of food aid worldwide. USAID funding has evolved to include new methods of reaching those in need, but U.S. wheat farmers believe traditional in-kind food aid will always have a place in both emergency and developmental humanitarian aid programs. New emergency aid tools like local and regional procurement and cash vouchers supplement the foundational aid tool of in-kind food aid.

USW is committed to supporting programs that help feed food-insecure people. In a world with political uncertainty and increasingly volatile climate conditions, U.S. wheat farmers are proud that their product is going to benefit food-insecure populations through USDA and USAID emergency and developmental aid.

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An old adage suggests that two of the biggest influences on a market are weather and governments. Though there is not much that USW can do about the weather, government policies are one key area where we can work with our customers to help achieve beneficial outcomes for both. A leading example of that cooperative work was on display last week as two Brazilian flour millers joined USW staff in a series of meetings in Washington, DC, in hopes of securing more favorable access to U.S. wheat supplies.

Brazil is an agricultural powerhouse, and one of the world’s largest exporters of agricultural commodities. In addition to well-known production success in corn and soybeans, Brazilian farmers also produce between five and six million tons of wheat annually — about half of the 10 million metric tons (MMT) of wheat the Brazilian people consume each year. That leaves Brazilian flour mills in need of significant wheat imports each year.

The relationship between the U.S. wheat and Brazilian milling industries goes back several decades. In the 1980s, Brazil was a regular and large customer of U.S. supplies, purchasing between two and three MMT annually. The 1990s brought the formation of the Southern Common Market or Mercosur trading bloc, allowing wheat from Argentina to enter Brazil duty-free and leading to a subsequent decline in imports from the United States. During that time, Brazil agreed to a 750,000 metric tons (MT) zero-duty tariff rate quota (TRQ), allowing Brazilian millers access to a dedicated amount of wheat from the United States, Canada and other world suppliers on an even basis with Argentine wheat. Unfortunately, Brazil never implemented that TRQ and negotiations on a replacement for it remain open today.

Resolution of the outstanding TRQ could prove to be a win-win scenario for U.S. wheat producers and their Brazilian customers. Current discussions focus on applying a TRQ that will provide Brazilian millers more favorable access to world wheat supplies, while not directly displacing Brazilian wheat production.

The long-outstanding Brazilian wheat TRQ is a prime example that for markets to work we must have the right policies in place and we must collaborate with our customers around the world to influence those policies. USW will continue to seek the best possible outcomes when government policies hinder access to U.S. wheat supplies.

By Dalton Henry, USW Director of Policy

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USW President Alan Tracy joined the International Grains Council (IGC) for their 25th annual conference June 14 to present an overview of changes in global wheat trade, trade distorting government policies and the United States’ shift to quality-based wheat markets. More than 200 attendees at the conference in London, United Kingdom, came from grain importing and exporting countries around the world to hear updates on production prospects and discuss major issues facing the grain trade.

One of the biggest shifts in the world wheat market in the last 15 years has been the emergence of Russia as a major wheat exporter, averaging 17.9 MMT from 2011/12 to 2015/16. With that growth, Russia has become a primary supplier of wheat to price-sensitive markets across the Middle East and North Africa, displacing other traditional suppliers including the United States, Canada and the European Union (EU).

USW has narrowed its activities in markets now served mainly by Black Sea suppliers but increased its resources in growing quality-sensitive markets, primarily in Southeast Asia and Latin America. An increasing majority of flour millers and wheat food processors in those markets see wheat as a food ingredient with specific value, rather than as a bulk commodity sourced merely on price. Connecting with these new markets provides more value for overseas customers and, in turn, helps U.S. farmers capture more revenue per acre for the high-quality wheat they produce.

Tracy also discussed government policies that distort trade. Reflecting on previous IGC meetings, he recalled long-past discussions on the harm caused by rival country export subsidy programs — which are largely no longer in use. Today, instead of export subsidies, the biggest market distortion comes from domestic support programs, primarily in several advanced developing countries.

Every WTO member country has agreed to specific limits and rules on agricultural support programs. However, many countries exceed those limits and fail to report their programs accurately. When an importing country provides a government support price above world market prices, they encourage domestic production. That offsets imports to the detriment of the global trading system and to farmers in other countries.

USW has spent the last five years documenting and quantifying the effects from these programs. The forum presented an ideal place to share and discuss the data as out-of-compliance programs not only harm the United States, but also exporters around the world.

By Dalton Henry, USW Director of Policy

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By Josh Tonsager, Legislative Director, National Association of Wheat Growers

Congressional action this year on policy priorities important to wheat farmers has taken some unexpected turns and the outlook for the legislative process is unclear. By now, this should not come as a surprise to anyone who has been following Congress the past several years. What should come as a surprise, though, is just how well critical programs for the wheat industry have fared thus far through the process Congress uses to appropriate federal funds.

Both the House and Senate Appropriations Committees have reported their respective versions of the FY 2017 Agriculture Appropriations bill, which funds the operations of USDA and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The National Association of Wheat Growers (NAWG), in conjunction with the National Wheat Improvement Committee, advocated for a funding increase for the U.S. Wheat and Barley Scab Initiative, which helps fund research intended to combat fusarium head blight. While the current Farm Bill authorizes up to $10 million per year for the program, actual funding has only been $6.7 million annually. Our organizations advocated for full funding, and we are pleased that both the House and Senate bills included an increase of $2 million. This is a significant step forward in the fight against a very costly wheat disease. This funding requires full House and Senate membership debate and approval, which could occur in June.

In addition to the Agriculture spending bill, NAWG is actively supporting transportation infrastructure investments through a broad coalition called the Ag Transportation Working Group. NAWG is working collaboratively to ensure continued support for inland waterways infrastructure, including the maintenance of our locks, dams and harbors through the FY 2017 Energy and Water Appropriations bill. The Senate approved its version of the bill on a 90-8 vote on May 12. It included the coalition’s request of the full use of funds through the diesel fuel tax (this has sometimes been limited) for the Inland Waterways Trust Fund as well as $3.17 billion for dredging, repairs, and operations to improve our waterways and help hold down basis cost for buyers and sellers.

The House version of the bill also includes full use of revenues available for the Inland Waterways Trust Fund and about $3.137 billion for dredging, repairs and operations. The status of the House bill, however, is unclear at this time. On May 26, a vote on passage of the bill failed on the House floor, reportedly because that version included a controversial provision that was unrelated to our priorities.

A healthy wheat production system, combined with an efficient waterway, rail and highway systems and continued funding for USDA/Foreign Agricultural Service export market development programs, are critical for the United States to remain the world’s most reliable supplier. NAWG, with input from USW, will stay engaged in the appropriations process in an effort to secure sufficient federal funding for the programs that ultimately benefit U.S. wheat farmers and their downstream customers at home and abroad.

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U.S. trade negotiators are now focusing more and more on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (T-TIP), a proposed free trade agreement between the United States and the EU. T-TIP negotiations started in 2013 and maintained a relatively slow pace until last fall when negotiators completed the 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)  now awaiting congressional ratification.

Last week, government representatives met in New York for their thirteenth round of T-TIP negotiations that included stakeholder comments. While both governments praised the progress to date and expressed optimism at possibly finalizing an agreement this year, significant differences remain with increased pressure to complete an agreement before the end of President Obama’s administration. In particular, the two sides seem to have significant gaps to bridge on key agricultural issues.

Due to fears that negotiators could strike a narrower agreement without resolving those agricultural issues, a bipartisan group of 26 senators is calling for agricultural issues to remain a priority. Their recent letter highlighted the need for broad-based tariff elimination, science-based approaches to animal and plant health issues and the improvements to the troublesome EU regulatory framework for approval of biotechnology products.

U.S. wheat exports currently face a complex “margin of preference” program that allows only high protein wheat and durum into the EU duty free, as long as world prices remain above a certain threshold. USW supports a comprehensive T-TIP agreement that eliminates all wheat duties, contains a fully enforceable sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) chapter and provides for a predictable biotechnology approval process. USW established a full T-TIP priorities document as negotiations began three years ago.

As two large wheat producers and exporters, the United States and the EU are unlikely to see major trade shifts in wheat because of T-TIP. However, the agreement does have the potential to expand access for U.S. producers to the world’s largest agricultural importer and to establish key precedents for future trade agreements.

Agricultural issues are far from the only remaining sticking points. Significant differences remain in automobile market access, the creation of an investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) mechanism and access to government procurement programs. According to the schedule, negotiators will take stock of progress in late May, with another formal round likely in July.

By Dalton Henry, USW Director of Policy

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By Ben Conner, USW Deputy Director of Policy

This week, a team of Cuban agriculture and trade officials visited the United States to explore the U.S. grain production system at the invitation of the U.S. Grains Council, which asked USW to present information about U.S. wheat trade at a meeting with the officials in Washington, DC.

The Cuban team included representatives from the Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of International Trade and ALIMPORT, the government agency in charge of grain imports. The group met with wheat farmers from Kansas, Texas and Maryland along with USW staff including Regional Vice President Mitch Skalicky, based in Mexico City. The discussion centered on issues that impede U.S. wheat exports to Cuba. Following meetings in Washington, DC, the Cuban team travelled to Maryland, Missouri and Louisiana to learn more about U.S. grain production, trading and processing.

This was an important opportunity ultimately because trade relationships based on mutual trust may be forged even though political barriers exist. Today, there are still requirements that Cubans must pay cash in advance of receiving U.S. agricultural exports. That requirement does not exist for any other country. In fact, these regulations make all business in the Caribbean more difficult. A baker or miller in a nearby country wanting to sell their products to Cuba pays the shipper more due to of the cost of compliance with U.S. trade laws.

Businesses exporting wheat should be able to make a judgment based on their assessment of political risk. They do it all the time. There needs to be enough trust to ensure the price risk to U.S. exporters is minimized. The arrival of Cuban grain trade officials on U.S. shores demonstrates that Cubans want to reach a position of mutual trust.

Ojalá — hopefully — this U.S. visit by Cuban agriculture and trade officials is a sign of a brighter, more trustworthy future between the people of these two countries that are so close, yet so far apart. If trade and regular interaction with farmers and agribusinesses to the north is given the opportunity to flourish, that day may come sooner

For those interested in more information on the potential of U.S. trade with Cuba, see the U.S. International Trade Commission report released Monday here.

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Working with partners around the world on shared missions has been a core function of USW throughout its history. That principle applies whether those partners are wheat growers, customers or even international market competitors. An example of this collaboration was on display last week in Winnipeg, Saskatchewan, at the third annual Canadian Global Crops symposium. USW and some of its stakeholders joined more than 250 professionals from the Canadian wheat and grain value chains at the symposium to tackle the big topics facing our industry.

The conference, appropriately themed “Innovation: Opportunity and Challenge,” focused on the application of technology in agriculture and resulting effects on the entire value chain. The broad category of advanced plant breeding techniques, including technologies such as CRISPR-cas9 and TALEN, both commonly referred to as “gene editing,” garnered particular attention. Two seed companies provided detailed explanations of these processes and their applications in breeding programs. Compared to the lengthy process of cross-breeding and its random results, advanced breeding technologies are allowing more precise improvements in plant breeding, in many cases without producing transgenic plants. Grain handling companies and government regulators also provided perspective on the new technologies, including how regulators view the processes and potential challenges that may result from uncoordinated governments’ regulations. USW supports a review process that facilitates industry discussions such as these to ensure compatibility between all governments’ efforts on these new technologies.

During the symposium, the International Grain Trade Coalition (IGTC) held strategy and general sessions. The IGTC includes non-profit trade associations, councils and corporate stakeholders interested in working to support trade in grains, oilseeds and other bulk agricultural products. The organization has multiple working groups that focus on finding solutions to trade irritants and informing discussions on global trade in grains, including expanding the use of electronic documents and harmonization of phytosanitary measures. A number of U.S. and Canadian companies and grower organizations, including USW, are active IGTC members and support its work to better facilitate trade for both our producers and customers around the world.

It is through platforms such as these that both Canadian and U.S. grower organizations are able to work together for the advancement of the entire industry and better serve the needs of the customers we share around the world.

By Dalton Henry, USW Director of Policy

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Last week marked the annual release of the National Trade Estimate (NTE) to Congress by the Offices of the U.S. Trade Representative’s (USTR). The NTE report is a 474-page- list of trade barriers facing U.S. companies and producers. It documents a range of trade barriers, including Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS), technical and market access restrictions. USW submitted a host of concerns to USTR on October 28, 2015.

The report highlights a few major accomplishments from 2015, including completion of Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations and the U.S. ratification of the Trade Facilitation Agreement — the first multilateral trade agreement in the WTO’s 20-year history. Beyond the successes of the past year, the report also lays out a roadmap of future work for USTR. Numerous wheat industry priorities made the listing, two of which are highlighted here.

A new addition to the 2016 report was China’s administration of their tariff-rate quota (TRQ) system, which Chinese millers and USW have repeatedly identified as a major hurdle in expanding the use of U.S. wheat in China. The report stated, “Market access promised through the tariff-rate quota system set up pursuant to China’s WTO accession agreement has yet to be fully realized.” Each year China completely uses the portion of the TRQ allocated directly to flour millers. However, the portion held by the state is not fully utilized and almost never reallocated as required by the WTO agreement.

China is not the only country where a TRQ keeps out potential wheat exports. Nearly two decades ago, Brazil committed to a 750,000 ton duty-free TRQ. The NTE report notes that Brazil never opened the TRQ, and therefore has imported no wheat under it. Without either ad hoc access, which Brazil opened in 2013 and 2014, or a functioning TRQ, Brazilian millers must pay a 10 percent tariff to purchase supplies anywhere outside of the Mercosur trade bloc. That leaves the United States, Canada and others at a significant price disadvantage.

These two barriers are just a preview of the issues listed by USTR. USW will continue to work with our partners to pursue resolutions to these barriers that hinder our customer’s ability to purchase U.S. wheat.

By Dalton Henry, USW Director of Policy

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Before this week, Air Force One had never been to Cuba. As the call sign for planes used to transport the President of the United States, Air Force Ones have landed in over 100 countries, but not once in Cuba until this past Sunday. That day marked the start of the first trip by a sitting U.S. president to Cuba since 1928.

President Obama spent three days in Cuba, along with a large delegation of government officials and industry representatives. Most importantly for agriculture, several representatives of the U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba (USACC) made the trip at the invitation of the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. Representing wheat farmers was Doug Keesling from Kansas.

“We need to put politics aside. It is time for the people of Cuba and the United States to finally be able to meet each other face-to-face,” said Keesling. “Whether we are looking to make deals on wheat shipments or just enjoy each other’s company over mojitos and cigars, we are tired of dealing with these restrictions. It’s time to move on to the next chapter in U.S.-Cuban relations and end the embargo.”

It was an eventful few days for the USACC members, who met with counterparts in Cuban agriculture and participated in events with agriculture leaders from both U.S. and Cuban governments. USACC acted as ambassadors for U.S. agriculture in a country where there has been far too little exposure in decades, even handing out Cuban and American flag lapel pins on the streets.

A lot has happened in the nearly 90 years since a U.S. President last visited Cuba. Most significantly, for U.S.-Cuban relations, revolutionary armed forces led by Fidel Castro deposed the U.S.-backed government in Havana in 1959. Very few U.S. citizens have ever approved of the revolutionary government in Havana or supported its efforts to spread Marxist ideology beyond its shores. Since the end of the Cold War, pronounced ideological differences have persisted, though ideological conflict has largely subsided.

According to public opinion polls, most Americans support repealing the laws collectively known as the Cuba Embargo. Generally, supporters of repeal believe it would be better for both the Cuban and American people if the two countries can trade and interact freely, or at least without obstacles imposed by the United States. Along with President Obama, many Members of Congress – both Republicans and Democrats – support engagement instead of sanctions. Several from both parties accompanied the President this week in Cuba, along with Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and other Cabinet members.

Cuba is the largest wheat market in the Caribbean, but U.S. exports have dried up completely since 2011. The single largest obstacle preventing the resumption of wheat exports to Cuba is codified in U.S. law and will take an act of Congress to repeal. The embargo must end and the wheat industry will continue advocating for that action.

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Excerpts from the National Association of Wheat Growers Newsletter.

The United States has a long-history of advancing wheat quality to satisfy the demand of a growing world market for high quality, wholesome grains that become the ingredients of a sophisticated food industry. The National Wheat Improvement Committee (NWIC) — including public wheat breeders, farmers and industry stakeholders — serves a vital role by providing farmers with high quality seed stock so that the United States can produce superior quality wheats demanded by domestic and overseas markets. Unfortunately, wheat research funding relative to the economic viability of U.S. wheat is inadequate

“In many cases, due to the strong dollar, these quality wheats now garner a substantial premium, reflecting their intrinsic end-use functional value,” said USW Vice President and West Coast Office Director Steve Wirsching. “To maintain our competitive advantage in the area of quality, U.S. farmers need new breeding technology that will require continued investment from both public and private sector stakeholders.”

To sustain the research needed to improve U.S. wheat’s position in foreign markets, the NWIC has determined that Congress needs to provide $3.4 million more every year in research funds. As a part of its educational activities, the NWIC brought 21 wheat breeders and stakeholders to Washington, DC, March 15.

Armed with a priority list of critical research appropriation requests, NWIC members made their case with key contacts in USDA and Congress. Their requests included full funding for the U.S. Wheat and Barley Scab Initiative and next-generation genotyping, which will facilitate the application of genomic information and DNA marker technologies for improvement and breeding of wheat, barley and oat varieties.“It is crucial that Congress is aware of the necessity for continued, stable investment in wheat research,” said NWIC Chairman Dr. Paul Murphy, from North Carolina University. “The next decade holds tremendous promise based on emerging technologies that were not possible even five or ten years ago. This is a wonderful time to be a wheat researcher because we are developing technology to improve efficiency, address vulnerabilities such as disease, insect and abiotic stresses, and maintaining the quality of wheat we need to help feed the world.”

The NWIC believes the benefits of increased research investment will cascade from farmers to the world’s millers, bakers, brewers and consumers.

Recently, the USDA has also made a case for agriculture research funding. As reported in Agri-Pulse © on March 16, the leaders of USDA’s research agencies told lawmakers on the House Agriculture Appropriations panel why federal investment in agricultural research is critical to protecting the national food system and supporting American producers. Read the full story from Agri-Pulse here.