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Future ag trade will promote justice, sustainability

Tim Hearden People viewing fish screens
Visitors view a fish screen and ladder added to a creek that passes Gorrill Ranch in Durham, Calif. Ex-officials say future trade deals will place more of an emphasis on sustainable agriculture.
Agreements between governments and private contracts will stress consumer values, ex-officials say.

As the COVID-19 pandemic recedes and governments begin to focus on other areas of need such as trade, future deals – and private contracts with producers – will place more of an emphasis on consumer values such as sustainability and farmworker justice, two former top U.S. officials told Almond Conference webinar viewers.

Agreements are more likely to include language under which sustainability measures are required for producers to participate in farm programs or qualify for certain incentives, said Darci Vetter, a former U.S. chief agricultural negotiator under then-President Barack Obama.

Growers and processors will be more likely to encounter supply-chain requirements such as more transparency and traceability of food through the system, she said.

“We’re used to doing that for food safety, but now we’re going to do that for the food story,” including its environmental footprint and the welfare of workers, said Vetter, now a vice chairwoman for agriculture and trade at Edelman.

“Some of the mandates will not just come from government, but international processors, retailers and others have made voluntary commitments to climate, social justice and worker issues and they’ll need to show those commitments,” she said.

Krysta Harden, a former USDA deputy secretary under Obama, agrees.

“For the U.S. to remain that source of choice … we have to think a little bit differently, and I believe in the U.S. we are,” said Harden, now a top global environmental strategy official at Dairy Management Inc., and chief operating officer at the U.S. Dairy Export Council.

“No one can produce more than U.S. farmers, but having the best product is not enough,” she said. “You have to be accountable … Some farmers don’t want to have these conversations, but if they don’t, they may not be farming in a decade.”

Driven by consumer interest

Harden and Vetter made their remarks Wednesday during a general session of the conference, which is normally held in Sacramento but was moved online this year because of coronavirus-related restrictions on public gatherings. The conference began Tuesday and will wrap up today.

Their comments come as consumer interest in how their food is produced has led to numerous efforts by farm groups to promote more environmentally friendly practices. For instance, nearly one-third of California’s vineyards representing more than 85 percent of commercial wine production are certified under a third-party sustainability program.

Stung by criticism of growers’ environmental impacts during the 2012-16 drought, the Almond Board of California is undertaking an ambitious project called Orchard 2025 Goals. The industry set out two years ago to cut water use by an additional 20%, increase use of environmentally friendly pest management tools by 25%, eliminate orchard waste by making better use of byproducts and halve the amount of dust kicked up during harvest.

The effort relies heavily on achieving more widespread industry participation in the more than decade-old California Almond Sustainability Program (CASP), whose nitrogen and irrigation calculators and mapping tool will help the board quantify growers’ progress toward greater sustainability.

As the pandemic and trade disputes have upended markets in recent years, conference organizers wanted Vetter and Harden to examine how changes in the geopolitical climate will impact American agriculture and the California almond industry.

The coronavirus “impacted not only supply chains but started to point out weaknesses in the food production system,” said Julie Adams, the Almond Board’s vice president of global technical and regulatory affairs.

“Being in ag, we’re already used to change,” she said. “But with a crop like almonds, what we have to really do is think about not just the here and now but what’s on the horizon, what it is we have to be prepared for going forward.”

U.S. competitiveness addressed

After several turbulent years in trade, growers shouldn’t expect tensions to “magically ease” when President-elect Joe Biden takes the reins on Jan. 20, Vetter said. For example, Biden will examine trade with China but won’t upend current tariffs or the Phase 1 trade deal negotiated by President Donald Trump, she said. China’s trade practices are still unfair, she said, and tariffs are a tool.

But Vetter sees “glimmers of hope” for enhanced trade with the European Union, which shares Biden’s goal of addressing climate change through sustainable farming practices and is also wary of China.

“We need our allies to put more pressure on China than we’re able to put unilaterally,” she said, adding there have already been “overtures” between the incoming administration and the EU.

Still, the U.S. will need to seek ways to improve competitiveness that was lost when Trump withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, in which 11 other countries are still enrolled. Vetter also cited the 15-nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership in Southeast Asia that was signed in November, and the EU’s aggressive push to complete trade deals with Japan and countries in Asia, Africa and South America.

“The question is what more do you bring to the table?” said Vetter, adding that consumers already expect agricultural goods to be safe. “Does your business exist just to make something or for a larger commitment to your community and the world, and to transparency? Are you willing to tell us what you’re doing?

“I think we’re at this really crucial point in time when we say, ‘Here’s the way we’re addressing these underlying themes and here’s how we’re debating doing it,’” she said.

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