June 30, 2015

TRADE NEGOTIATIONS: Ambassador Vetter Handles Key Assignment with Aplomb

Darci Vetter serves as Chief Agricultural Negotiator with the rank of Ambassador at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.  She is responsible for bilateral and multilateral negotiations and policy coordination regarding agricultural trade.  Recently she answered several questions from Western Grower & Shipper concerning her career and the current negotiations.


Q: Where were you born and raised?

A: I grew up on a small family farm in Nebraska.  My father farmed and ran a family grain processing business with my uncle and my grandfather.  It was mostly a grain operation, but we did have a garden where we grew our own fruits and vegetables.  Today, my uncle runs the farm, and my father and brother run the processing operation.


Q: We know that your role as Chief Agriculture Negotiator at USTR is critical in terms of agriculture trade policy, what have you done prior to this role?

A: I was always interested in international and natural resources issues.  In fact, I went to grad school at Princeton and majored in international affairs and environmental policy.  In between my undergraduate and graduate degrees, I did Rural Development work at USDA, and after grad school I went to work for the State Department and then held positions at USTR (including as Director of Agricultural Affairs) before working as an international trade advisor for the U.S. Senate.  Most recently, I was the Deputy Under Secretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services at USDA.  So in a way, this current position (as Ag Ambassador) is coming back full circle.


Q: Why is trade important to the agricultural industry?

A: International trade represents about 20–30 percent of U.S. farm income so it is very important to the farm economy.  I also believe there is a huge opportunity to increase our trade in agricultural products.  The United States offers superior and consistent quality in many different agriculture commodities so I believe we are very well-positioned for further growth in this area.

We are witnessing a rapid rise in the middle class in developing countries, and as consumers reach the middle class, they change the way they eat.  An increased demand for proteins tends to be the first item that those new to the middle class want.  That includes, meat, dairy and nuts.  But we also see an increase in consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables, as people pay more attention to nutrition and desire more fresh product as their income rises.


Q: Specifically tell us how trade negotiations occur when a foreign trade agreement is being discussed?

A: Every negotiation is different, but we really have two types of negotiations, market access (tariff) negotiations, and negotiations about trade rules.  In the market access negotiations, there are typically 1800–2000 separate agricultural items/products that have to be addressed.  We truly go line by line as we try to reduce or eliminate tariffs for every agricultural product.


Q: How do you deal with non-tariff trade barriers?

A: This is where the rules negotiations come in.  It is a fact that as tariffs have gone down, we have seen non-tariff trade barriers go up.  We are working to make sure that when countries put phytosanitary (SPS) measures in place, they are based on science, and that the measures address a specific plant pest risk.  We are also working to ensure that our trading partners apply SPS measures in a transparent manner, so producers are informed of current standards, and know what testing and other procedures their product will face at the border.


Q: Specifically where are you in terms of the current negotiations underway?

A: The TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) negotiations are nearing their conclusion.  There are very few issues left to be resolved.  We expect to complete the process in the coming weeks, and will get back to the negotiating table as soon as Congress finds a path forward to adopt Trade Promotion Authority.

With regard to the European TTIP (Transatlantic Trade & Investment Partnership), we are much earlier in the process.  The goal is to reduce and eliminate tariffs, and address longstanding SPS barriers.  We are still in the earlier stages of this negotiation.


Q: What can the agricultural community do to help you do your job?

A: Call us!  Seriously pick up the phone and call us if you notice that it is more difficult to complete a trade because a new barrier has been erected or a chemical that wasn’t a problem before is now a problem.  We work very closely at USTR with the FAS (Foreign Agricultural Service) at USDA.  We are very happy to hear from growers and grower groups.  If a reliable market has become problematic, we want to know about it.

This is my plea for data.  We can’t fix a problem if we don’t know about it.  Growers can be our eyes and ears.  If you start to see a trade barrier, let us know at USTR, tell the FAS ag attaché in the country where you face a problem, or notify your trade association.  Go through Western Growers.  We work very closely with your representatives.

You can also go to the USTR or FAS websites.  There you will find contact information for our team in Washington, and for ag attaches all over the world.


Q: Are there more trade barriers today than there were years ago?  Is free trade trending in the right direction?

A: Barriers are not new and they tend to run the gamut.  While there seem to be more barriers today, the volume and variety of agricultural goods moving around the globe has also increased exponentially in recent years, so some of that is to be expected.  There are a number of legitimate pest or food safety measures, but there are also measures that appear to address legitimate health issues, but are really disguised to keep trade out.  These barriers make it harder than necessary to participate in trade, and we try to remove them wherever possible.


Q: In general how do you see trade opportunities for growers in the United States?

A: There is an increased demand for the U.S. brand, and a great opportunity for the increased trade of our products.


Q: In the past we have heard criticism of U.S. companies that do not tailor their products to the export market, but rather just sell the same items they sell to the U.S. customers.  Is that still a problem?

A: I see that changing, and it comes with experience.  For example, foreign consumers may have smaller kitchens and smaller refrigerators and may prefer to shop for food every day.  They want different container sizes than we might want in the United States.  I see a lot more companies specifically creating products for foreign consumption.  Many companies are doing a good job of meeting the specific demands of foreign customers, including by working through the USDA Market Access Program to promote their products.


Q: What tools do you use in your ag negotiations for protecting the U.S. producers?  Are there pressures to restrict trade into the United States?

A: Agricultural negotiations tend to be more sensitive than others.  It is a prime area for imports and there are some commodity groups against trade and trying to protect their industry.  We do use many different tactics to help industries adjust, such as quotas and the phasing out of tariffs.


Q: China is a growing economic power.  Do you expect it to be a net importer as time moves on?

A: China is already a very big customer for many U.S. products such as corn and soybeans.  It will be interesting to see what will happen with regard to fruits and vegetables.  Right now we are all seeing what is happening in the western United States with regard to the drought and how that will impact future production and exports.  China faces similar questions; it is a water-poor country and it will have to prioritize what it will produce and what it will import.  U.S. products do have a certain cache among upper class Chinese citizens.  It is considered a status symbol to serve food, particularly dried fruits and nuts, that comes from the United States.  I believe demand for U.S. products in China will continue to increase.


Q: Finally, our members produce some of the best fruits and vegetables in the world, are you a user of our fresh produce and nuts?

A: I am.  I might not get my 5 a Day every day, but I try.  Right now I have a fresh nectarine on my desk.  This is my favorite time of year when there are so many great fruits and vegetables in season.

Growing up we had one-third of an acre devoted to fruits and vegetables and we used to grow lots of our food.  Now, in my yard I have a little garden where I grow a few things.

I love to cook.  Right now I like everything with balsamic vinegar.  I like to roast Brussels sprouts and drizzle balsamic vinegar and olive oil over them.  I also love fresh strawberries with balsamic vinegar.  They’re delicious.

(Editor’s Note: The questions and answers have been edited and paraphrased for clarity and brevity.)