One of the country’s top agricultural trade officials talked NAFTA, Brexit and roquefort cheese with attendees of the Dairy Strong conference on Jan. 24.
Speaking by Skype from Washington, D.C., Ted McKinney, who is the under secretary of agriculture for trade and foreign agricultural affairs, touted the United States Mexico Canada Agreement (USMCA) as a crucial win albeit not yet ratified.
“The USMCA, or NAFTA 2.0 as some of you may call it, is one of the most important things we are or should be working on,” McKinney said. “The USTR (Office of the United States Trade Representative) really delivered for ag generally and U.S. dairy in particular.”
The U.S. gained more market access for agriculture, with the majority being dairy, than any other part of the agricultural world, he said.
“That was hard fought. It’s difficult to take our enterprise system and free markets and work against Canada who has the protected market, or the managed supply programs… That’s a huge win.”
During negotiations of the agreement, many of the people McKinney talked with told him they merely wanted to maintain their status quo and not lose anything.
“‘We just want to stay whole,’ that was the theme,” he said. “The fact that we maintained that and got something more, I think, is a win.”
The USMCA isn’t official yet and still needs congressional approval.
McKinney called the farm ill’s inclusion of Dairy Margin Coverage, which is the latest rendition of the Margin Protection Program, one of the best bipartisan efforts he’s seen.
He said soon a new program called the Ag Trade Promotion Program will be announced. It will give $200 million to commodity groups to use to develop new markets. “Dairy got its fair share and maybe even a bit more than its fair share to go work on markets,” he said.
Until the European Union’s free trade agreement includes agriculture, the U.S. won’t fully engage in discussions with it, McKinney said.
And even though the United Kingdom seems to be taking a beating with Brexit, there’s a chance some good could come out of it for the U.S. Eighty percent of the United Kingdom’s exports go to Europe.
“We’re not going to know how to proceed with the U.K. until Brexit is settled, and if they stay tied to the E.U., it’s going to be tough to make a deal with them,” McKinney said. “But if it’s a hard Brexit, meaning the U.K. breaks all ties with customs, that will mean the most opportunities for other countries, including the U.S.”
Hardline Brexiteers want relief from governmental regulations, he said.
One of McKinney’s favorite topics to bring up during government meetings is that of geographic indicators, which he described as “an attempt by the E.U. to claw back and disallow the use of brand-name cheeses, milk in some cases, too, because they originated from Europe.” He said he wants to protect our brands — Idaho potatoes is an example — but within limits.
“We wouldn’t want Italy to start declaring baked potatoes that they grow as Idaho baked potatoes, so there’s value in protecting one’s brands,” he said. “It’s when they go back and start reaching: they want to brand feta or roquefort or other types of cheeses that your ancestors brought here decades, even millennia, ago. That’s not fair.