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RSS By: Steve Cornett, Beef Today

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Good News on Exports, We Hope

May 04, 2009

By Steve Cornett

Maybe we’ve been too worried about the future of beef trade. Both Europe and South Korea seem to be going our way at the moment.

We’ve visited before about how important the export market is and will be. You don’t have to read the New York Times every day to be aware that there is a lot of pressure on Americans to eat less beef.

You and I can argue with their logic all day, but so far we’ve done little to turn around the slide in domestic per capita beef consumption.

If we’re going to keep producing more beef with fewer cows, as we seem inclined to do, we’ve got to have growing markets. Population growth isn’t likely to keep up with increased production.

So it’s crucial that we keep and open new markets for beef. The way Candidate Obama sounded a year ago about trade, many of us were scared to death. Now, he seems to have opened his heart to open markets. That’s good, if it’s so and if he and his greenheaded friends don’t put too many restrictions on producers.

One reason for hope: The European Union seems to be giving U.S. trade authorities cause to believe they are serious about allowing more access.

That’s a big deal because we’ve been fighting the Europeans for two decades over the use of growth promotants. That has been a thorny argument because it gets right at the heart of the ability of two entities to agree on what constitutes “sound science” and how to agree on the difference between honest disagreements and “non tariff trade barriers.”

In this case, the U.S.—backed by the “judges” at the World Trade Organization—has long contended that growth promotants pose no threat to health. But the EU, which seems (to us, at least) to be paranoid about all things smacking of modern technology has refused to accept U.S. beef without assurances it was produced without synthetic hormones.

It’s easy for us to see a non-tariff trade barrier, but the Europeans don’t allow their own producers to use implants, either. Politically, they have bent to the will of public opinion and international science be damned.

Until recently, the U.S. has stood firm, demanding that all such trade decisions be based on “sound science.” Now, it seems the current administration has offered the EU an out. We get more access to more of the “hormone free” beef they are willing to accept. They get relief for the cheese farmers and other victims of the retaliatory tariffs the U.S. applies to chosen products we import from the EU.

At least that’s how it looks. I’m not sure it’s smart for the longterm, but it looks like our side has decided to forego that hard, fast “sound science” approach. The new Administration appears willing to deal. Short term, that’s great. It’s going to give us some immediate access.

The concern, of course, is that once you admit that “sound science” is more gray than black or white, you’ve left the door open to arbitrary “scientific barriers” erected at the behest of domestic protectionists.

For instance, folks like the instigators of last year’s anti-U.S. riots in South Korea. You’ll recall that when the government there finally relented to crack the doors to U.S. beef, a consortium of folks led by Korean beef producers staged noisy rallies that left the impression Korean consumers were scared to death of the stuff.

Now, a year later, South Korean consumers are eagerly snapping up U.S. beef and the producers of a TV documentary that fueled the uprising have been arrested and charged with “spreading false rumors” about U.S. beef.

As it turns out, the reluctance of Koreans to accept U.S. beef was a figment of the protectionists’ imagination. That’s good news for us, even if it’s bad news for high-cost Korean beef farmers.

It’s easy to poopoo the Koreans for allowing a vocal few to whipsaw the system, but we’ve got the same thing on our side, where out own beef’s protectionist arm approaches Canadian beef just about the same way the Korean protectionists attacked U.S. beef. Their arguments are nearly identical—sound science may well indicate the threat of BSE from “their country” is infinitesimal but infinitesimal is still too much.

Once you decide to deal and compromise the principle of sound science, you give folks with non-scientific agendas a lot more power. In both Europe and Korea, we’ve allowed the ends to justify the means. I hope it works out for us and for them as well.

Steve Cornett is editor emeritus at Beef Today. You can reach him via e-mail at scornett@farmjournal.com.

This column is part of the Beef Today Cattle Drive e-newsletter, which is delivered to subscribers biweekly and includes beef industry analysis, market information as well as the latest beef headline news. Click here to subscribe.


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