Rice industry leader: Bill tied to WTO critical

As the United States continues to pursue multilateral trade negotiations through the World Trade Organization (WTO) Doha Round, it is imperative that the United States maintains a strong negotiating position for agriculture if it is to ensure a “successful” outcome for the U.S. agricultural sector.

Such an outcome can only be defined by meaningful and measurable market access improvements for U.S. farm products, including rice, that will make up for any commitments to reduce trade-distorting domestic support for U.S. farmers.

It would send absolutely the wrong signal at the wrong time in the midst of these negotiations for Congress and the administration to write a new farm bill that would likely reduce the level of support for production agriculture and change the structure of farm payments.

American farmers and ranchers, particularly those in Missouri, are fortunate to have two senators who recognize this key aspect of the negotiations and the importance to this nation of a strong agricultural sector. They understand the integral role the current farm bill — the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 — plays in keeping the sector strong and competitive.

Sens. Jim Talent, R-Mo., and Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., have on May 2 introduced a bill that would extend the current farm bill until there is a WTO agreement that is ratified by Congress. Only after that ratification should Congress undertake the task of writing a new farm bill to guide future agricultural policy. A WTO agreement would allow us to know what commitments on market access, domestic support and export competition our global competitors have agreed to. Other cosponsors with Sens. Talent and Lincoln include Sens. Kit Bond, R-Mo., Norm Coleman R-Minn., Byron L. Dorgan, D-N.D., Mary Landrieu, D-La., Mark Pryor, D-Ark., and David Vitter, R-La.

Sen. Talent has recognized that U.S. producers like the current farm bill. It is well balanced, equitable, and provides assistance to all segments of U.S. agriculture. For this reason and the fact that the WTO negotiations continue to slowly drag on, Sens. Talent and Lincoln have taken this step to send a strong signal to our negotiating partners in the WTO that the United States will not unilaterally disarm when it comes to our agriculture sector.

The WTO negotiators missed their deadline for an agreement in December in Hong Kong. They have just missed the April 30 deadline by which “modalities” — the formulas for making reductions in domestic support programs, tariffs and export subsidies — were to have been agreed to. There has been no report of any substantial progress in the negotiations, but a new negotiating deadline has been set for the end of July.

It makes perfect sense in this scenario to extend the current farm bill until the WTO Doha Round of negotiations is successfully completed. It is the right policy at the right time for U.S. agriculture, and the U.S. rice industry sincerely thanks Sens. Talent and Lincoln for their leadership on this effort.

Paul T. Combs is chairman of USA Rice Producers Group

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