While the dust is still settling from fallout at the World Trade Organization (WTO) Ministerial Conference in Cancun earlier this fall, National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) CEO Rick Tolman says he is encouraged by progress being made on trade agreements that fit into corn growers’ philosophies of fair and free trade and comparative advantage.

Tolman participated in an Ag Trade Advisory Committee (ATAC) meeting recently in Washington, D.C., where ATAC members were brought up to speed on current trade issues and gave advice on the next steps.

The ATAC was jointly appointed by USDA and the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) to give private sector advice on trade issues. Tolman serves on the grains and oilseeds advisory committee. "This was our first meeting post-Cancun, an update on some of the fallout and next steps," Tolman said. "It was an opportunity for USDA and USTR trade representatives to update us on their plans, what they’re thinking, what they’re hearing and to solicit advice on next steps."

Tolman said the meeting focused on briefings by negotiators working on WTO and some of the bilateral negotiations. Current bilaterals in process include those with Australia, Morocco, southern Africa led by South Africa, the Central American free trade agreement and the Free Trade of the Americas.

Tolman said there were two key themes that emerged from those briefings. "One key theme is there is some erosion in the group 21 (G21), the group that formed in Cancun to block the U.S. and Europe and other groups," he explained. "A number of countries have fallen out of that group because they saw it didn’t accomplish anything."

As a result, he noted, the United States is seeing more individual countries coming forward, willing to negotiate bilateral agreements. "On the one hand that’s good because it moves us into developing trade agreements," Tolman said. "On the other hand it’s bad because each bilateral is a little bit unique so you get a whole web of different bilaterals going on."

Another theme from the briefings, according to Tolman, was an increase in problems with sanitary and phytosanitary agreements. "The U.S. is trying to keep a multilateral framework in dealing with those issues. In other words keep the same standards we have in WTO, don’t make something unique," Tolman said. "The real issue is to get everybody to live up to their obligations."

Brazil, a G21 leader is still problematic, explained Tolman, noting they are being very aggressive in wanting the United States to address its domestic support programs in the bilateral. The United States again is committed to strictly negotiate these programs multilaterally, so Brazil is refusing to negotiate any of their other issues.

"We tend to focus on the disputes and the differences, and really when you sit down and look at it, there is progress on the trade front," he said. "Little by little we’re getting more and better trade happening. I think sometimes we can focus on the negatives of trade and get discouraged about it. By the nature of the way we set things up, we have different cultures, different trading systems. The things that work aren’t news. The disputes are news. The reality is trade is so important to us that, as corn producers, we have to stay engaged. We have to stay involved. And we have to keep pushing for the principles that we believe in which are fair and free trade and comparative advantage."

While in Washington, Tolman also met with U.S. Grains Council President Ken Hobbie and worked out implementation details of the joint trade policy A-team. "That’s pretty significant," Tolman concluded.

"We’re chairing that A-team this year and have lead staff responsibilities, and then next year the Grains Council will chair and have lead staff. I think it shows our commitment to work together and try to resolve issues and work as a partnership."