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Trade talk failures and your milk check

00:00AM Aug 04, 2008
Jim Dickrell

Perhaps the most under-reported story of the week last week was the collapse of the Doha Round of the World Trade Organization in Geneva.

After almost seven years of negotiations, talks fell apart over arcane "safeguards” for advanced developing countries like India and China. If the U.S. and other pro-trade countries would have acquiesced on this point, China might have been free to raise tariffs when it felt threatened. (China has already spent more than $100 million for U.S. dairy imports January through May of this year.) For a more complete picture of the trade talks' collapse, follow this link to the WTO Web site.

Most folks are saying "no agreement is better than a poor agreement.”  Well, yes….

The problem for U.S. dairy producers is that they are fast becoming players on world markets. Some 9.5% of U.S. milk solids were exported in 2007. And through the first quarter of 2008, exports surged to 10.7%.

Through May, U.S. dairy exports totaled $1.78 billion, an astounding 81% increase over the same period in 2007. Even cheese exports, at near-record domestic prices, jumped 49% through May. And through March, butter sales had already surpassed exports for all of 2007 by 12%.

This has been a huge boon to your milk check. With milk production climbing 3% and domestic demand inching up 1% at best (with fluid sales actually declining), export sales are "very critical,” says Scott Brown, an economist with the University of Missouri's Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute.

"Without exports, we would be looking at a much more bleak financial outlook given what is happening with feed prices,” he says.

The good news is that dairy exports won't start piling up on the docks at the Port of Long Beach simply because the WTO talks collapsed. Export demand for U.S. dairy products is still strong; the value of the dollar is still weak on world currency markets.

But long term, there could be trouble. The United States needs to ensure export subsidies are eliminated and U.S. dairy producers maintain and gain market access, says Margaret Speich,VP of communications with the U.S. Dairy Export Council.

"The European Union (EU) has only suspended its export subsidies on dairy. They have not eliminated them,” she says. "There could be backsliding.”

Out-right demand for U.S. dairy products has been building, thanks to years of effort by USDEC. But the suspension of those EU export subsidies allowed world prices to rise to the point where U.S. dairy products are now globally competitive. Without that price competitiveness, all the demand in the world won't move product.

Prospects for re-starting the trade talks are null and void in the near term. The United States must first pick a new president, for starters. Who ever occupies the Oval Office in 2009 will set the tone for how aggressive our trade negotiators are in revisiting Doha.

"It really depends on the next administration and its appetite to try again,” says Shawna Morris, director of government relations and trade for the National Milk Producers Federation. It could be mid-2009, maybe even 2010, before talks resume--if they resume, she says.

In the meantime, U.S. dairy producers will have to cross their fingers that world demand remains strong, the dollars remains weak—and that European farmers don't wake up to the fact that the world wants more dairy. That's a lot to hope for.

Jim Dickrell is editor of Dairy Today. You can reach him via e-mail at