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Korean Trade Agreement best deal for ag in years

DANIEL LOOKER 01/08/2011 @ 12:15pm Business Editor

Korea’s ambassador to the U.S. and a former top ag negotiator the U.S. government told farmers why passage of a free trade agreement is crucial for agriculture Saturday at the AgConnect Expo in Atlanta.

“It’s a huge deal. When implemented it will be the largest free trade agreement for the U.S. in 16 years,” said Ambassador Richard T. Crowder, who was the U.S. Chief Agriculture Negotiator in 2006 and 2007. Crowder played a key role in negotiating the agreement, signed in 2007.

The agreement hasn’t been approved by Congress, but now that the Korean government and the Obama Administration negotiated a side agreement dealing with auto industry issues last December, it’s expected to come up for a vote soon.

The American Farm Bureau Federation, which organized the talk at AgConnect, supports the FTA and estimates that U.S. agriculture will increase exports to Korea by about $1.8 billion a year after the agreement is phased in.

Korean Ambassador Han Duk-soo, said that the agreement was politically difficult in his own country.

“It faced intense opposition from Korean farmers. They had been protected for decades,” Han said. But compared to the U.S., Korea has little farmland and the average size of its farms is 3.6 acres. The Korean government will have readjustment programs and compensation for its own farmers who are affected by increased imports.

“Of all the American industries that stand to gain from the passage of the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement, I think there are none that will benefit more than American agriculture,” Han said.

Korea currently has high tariffs on imported foods, averaging about 49%. U.S. beef exports to Korea currently face a 40% tariff, which would be phased out over 15 years. Many other U.S. ag products would have no tariff once the agreement starts.

Han said Korea has no plans to import beef from animals older than 30 months. But that represents only about 3% of U.S. beef exports, he said, and Korea is already importing more beef from younger animals. It stopped imports after the mad cow scare in 2003 but began importing meet from younger animals in 2006. Since then, the U.S. share of Korea’s beef market has been growing, from 24% in 2009 to about 37% last year.

Korea is actively negotiating free trade agreements with other nations, including our competitors in beef exports, Australia and Canada. And it has an agreement with the European Union scheduled to take effect next summer.

Some observers of the trade negotiations have said that if the U.S. doesn’t approve the Korean agreement, our ag exports to Korea could loose out to other nations signing FTAs.

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