Why is Agriculture So Difficult for Trade Deals?

Seoul—As we wait for Japan’s Prime Minister Abe to discuss the U.S.-Japan bilateral talks during his address to the United States Congress, it is a good time to discuss why agricultural trade regularly confounds trade negotiations.  After all, the bilateral discussions between Japan and the United States, part of the parallel path in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations, is largely focused on agricultural products in Japan’s 5 “sacred” sectors (rice, beef/pork, dairy, wheat, and sugar). 

In short, the major obstacle is that agriculture is sensitive in every single country.  As a result, more than 60 years of negotiations in the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and its successor organization, the World Trade Organization (WTO), made only modest progress towards opening agricultural markets. 

This has left significant barriers to trade in food and beverages in different countries. WTO members now have widely varying commitments to tariff levels across different types of products.  Newer members and developed countries generally have lower tariff levels, but even relatively low tariffs conceal some significant tariff peaks.  Tariff levels and tariff peaks are significantly greater in agricultural sectors than in non-agricultural goods.

Tariff peaks are where general levels are low, but suddenly, for example, the Japanese tariff for a type of potato (konnyaku) faces levels of more than 1400 percent.  Peaks are frequently found in other agricultural items like rice, dairy, wheat, soybeans, edible oils, certain spices, as well as some specific items that are often unique to individual countries. 

If the tariff peak is high enough, no foreign products can be found in the marketplace at all.  Removing these peaks is particularly difficult, since they mark the most highly sensitive products that have been sheltered behind tariff walls for a significant time.

While most trade agreements do not even try to address the highest tariff peaks, the TPP is supposed to open all trade.  This means contentious discussions around highly sensitive agricultural items and sectors.  As we get close to the end, officials have had to finally grapple with these concerns. 

Another problem that is supposed to be addressed by the TPP for agricultural producers is tariff escalation.  This is where the tariff on a raw agricultural product like unprocessed coffee beans could face a tariff of 5 percent.  But roasted beans are charged 10 percent.  Ground beans could be 20 percent and bottled Starbucks Frappuccino drinks could be slapped with 45 percent tariffs.  The example is hypothetical, but the problem of tariff escalation is quite common. 

Escalation is a major problem, particularly for developing countries, because rising tariffs on higher processing can prevent firms from moving up the value chain into higher value items.  High tariffs on processed goods can mean that products are often not competitive and cannot capture the highest value.  Firms are stuck shipping raw coffee beans and not bottled coffee drinks where the highest money can be found.

As my last blog post noted, agricultural trade is particularly held hostage to problems of collective action.  Consumers benefit from lower tariff barriers to agricultural products.  They get a wider selection of items at potentially lower prices.  In areas with significant tariff peaks, consumer benefits could be substantial.  But no consumer ever lobbied government for cheaper butter or more soybean options. 

By contrast, farmers are frequently well organized and fiercely protective of their market space.  Any attempt to change the status quo is strongly resisted. 

This is true in the TPP members.  It is also true in non-members, who have to decide whether they want to join in the future.  I am sitting in a workshop in Seoul, sponsored by Korea’s Rural Economic Institute, to discuss agricultural changes around potential TPP membership.  The level of concern is palpable.

Korea will argue that their farmers tend to be working small scale, family plots.  Agricultural production, especially for an item like rice, has strong historical significance.  If rice were not produced domestically, wouldn’t it wreck Korea’s countryside and toss farmers ignominiously out of work?  Won’t the rural areas suffer irreparable harm and destruction?

No matter what happens in the TPP, it is unlikely that South Korea will witness the total destruction of the countryside and the complete loss of rice production.  Rice will still be grown in Korea.   It will continue to be consumed domestically and much of this production will be grown locally.  But Korean rice might someday be be exported more widely across TPP members as well.

Deeply held concerns about rice and other products, I should note, are not unique to Korea.  Japanese farmers make similar points.  So do growers in potential members like Taiwan.  In fact, I suspect that nearly every member and potential member faces similar kinds of issues.  Even in agricultural export powerhouses like the United States or New Zealand, it is possible to find small-scale, family farms that worry about increasing agricultural competition in their particular sectors.

It is important to note that agreements like the TPP do not mean that agricultural trade across the board will become completely open overnight.  Highly sensitive sectors will clearly be opened last.  For most members, the final items to be phased into the deal are likely to be agricultural products.

In addition, agriculture can use specific procedures to avoid complete opening overnight.  In the U.S.-Japan bilateral, Japan has not agreed to open the last five “sacred” sectors immediately.  Instead, we expect that Japan will, for instance, agree to drop tariffs on a very small quantity of rice for a bit of time.  The quantity will be specified by a quota that is likely to be opened for only 100,000 tons of rice from the United States at the outset. 

Over time, the goal is to gradually open the quota for more rice (or other sensitive agricultural products) at lower tariffs.  In time, the quota could even disappear all together, leaving the market completely open at some (likely) quite distant time. 

For beef products, frozen beef imported into Japan may fall from the current 38.5 percent tariff level to 9% for the United States (and hopefully this will also be extended to all TPP members).  Pork for Japan used to be split into three categories.  Now tariffs will drop from between 482-547 yen/kg down to 50 yen/kg with tariffs on the highest price pork falling to 0 tariffs. 

These commitments fall short of complete free trade.  The tariffs have not fallen to 0, at least for the near term.  However, it would have been impossible to lower tariffs of more than 777 percent on polished rice to 0 right away.  The other TPP members recognize the difficulties of forcing such a drastic change on a highly sensitive sector.  The goal is to get to free trade, but reality often intrudes--making the transition relatively long and slow.

In addition, given the sensitive nature of agriculture in every member state, governments have strong reasons to view deviations from fully open markets with a more relaxed eye.  After all, each government likely has its own sensitive products that it would like to support and grant farmers additional time for adjustment.

The real trick in a multi-party trade agreement is to grant sufficient flexibility in timeframes and commitments to allow everyone to remain inside the agreement while not diluting the outcome so much that the benefits are lost.  In an agreement like the TPP that promised coverage for all products, it has been difficult to manage. 

We may learn tomorrow how well the Americans and Japanese accomplished this delicate balance in agricultural trade.

***Talking Trade is a blog written by Deborah Elms, Executive Director, Asian Trade Centre, Singapore***

Defending the Indefensible in TPP

As the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade negotiations head towards conclusion, I am increasingly fielding questions from people about the challenging final issues that remain.  This post covers a range of topics that stem largely from officials trying to defend policies that appear indefensible to outsiders.  Most are rooted in specific local politics or interpretations of domestic conditions that may be under threat in the TPP.

Why is Japan fighting so hard for rice protections?  My interviewer on CNBC this week asked again why Japan’s government is ready to fight to the finish over issues of rice.  After all, the agricultural sector in Japan contributes a tiny sliver to overall economic output.  The average age of Japan’s farmers is heading towards 70 and very few farm full-time.  In exchange for historical protections that include a rice tariff of 777 percent to keep out foreign polished rice, Japanese consumers pay extraordinarily high prices for rice and agricultural products of all sorts.

This situation is not unique to Japan.  Like many countries, the political system has been stacked in favor of rural voters, who are overweighted in the parliament relative to their population size. 

Mansur Olsen, the Nobel-prize winning economist, highlighted problems of collective action several decades ago.  While it is true that consumers as a whole would benefit from lower rice and agricultural prices, the problems of collective action mean that these diffuse interests rarely result in activity by large groups that would receive modest benefits.  By contrast, Japanese rice farmers clearly grasp the competitive challenges that they will face from the removal of barriers to trade.  They have every incentive to make their unhappiness known in loud and clear terms to political leaders.

In Japan, these concentrated agricultural producer interests can be further funneled to politicians and bureaucrats through a strong and entrenched bureaucracy of their own.  Japanese farmers are also brought together by JA Zenchu, an agricultural cooperative that (for the moment) comes with large numbers of staff and considerable economic strength.  They can mobilize significant numbers of voters and ensure that their supporters make it to the polls on election day.

Why are the Americans fighting so hard on auto tariff reductions?  The United States currently levies a 2.5% tariff on imported passenger cars.  In the TPP, Japan is pushing hard to get this tariff eliminated as soon as possible.  Like all TPP rules, it would apply to TPP member firms only and would not be extended (through the TPP) to other country companies.

What makes American opposition to tariff reductions so puzzling is that much of Japan’s auto production now takes place inside the United States and the rest of North America.  As a result of the rules set down more than 20 years ago in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), auto producers that want to take advantage of the agreement must produce a substantial percentage of the final vehicles in NAFTA countries.  Hence, few Japanese autos are likely to benefit from a lowering of tariffs on autos in the TPP since most are already created inside the American domestic marketplace where they have never paid tariffs on the final products.

For more than 30 years, the U.S. auto industry has been uncomfortable with Japan’s access to the American market.  Maintaining a minor tariff for a substantial length of time is one way to help encourage wavering members of Congress to avoid blocking the TPP agreement on behalf of the domestic auto industry. 

Why can’t Canada change the supply management system for dairy and poultry?  The TPP is supposed to be a high quality, 21st century trade agreement that includes all products with no exceptions and a goal of lowering tariffs to zero.  In this context, the myriad system of supports that Canada uses to protect domestic dairy and poultry farmers from competition (primarily from the Americans) ought to be phased out over time.

But Canada faces the same sort of collective action problems on agricultural reform that Japan confronts.  Although Canada’s consumers would clearly benefit from lower prices on a wider range of dairy and egg products, the industry is much better organized and can mobilize significant resources to fight change.  So far, the industry has been impressively successful in keeping supply management off the negotiating table, including (so far) in the TPP talks.

Why won’t the Americans open up the domestic sugar market to Australian sugar?  This question stems from an odd quirk in the current negotiating environment in the TPP.  Although officials are aiming for a high quality result, negotiators have to operate in a world of existing, overlapping trade agreements from the past.  These previous deals will not go away once the TPP is signed.

In an existing bilateral trade agreement between the United States and Australia, sugar was carved out or excluded from the deal.  At the time, it was part of a “grand bargain” of sorts that let Australia carve out investor-state dispute settlement while the Americans protected their sugar industry.  If Australia gets better access to the American sugar market in the TPP, it will undermine the provisions of the past deal.

The sugar industry in the United States has been amazingly well protected since WWII.  Production of sugar cane is highly concentrated in a handful of farmers.  But production of sugar beets is spread much more widely.  Large numbers of members of the U.S. Congress represent states or districts that grow sugar across diverse and politically important parts of the country.   These representatives have always responded to the money and influence of the domestic sugar lobby and the TPP is no exception.  Sugar changes in the TPP that would allow greater imports of Australian sugar have been vigorously fought off.

Why don’t American union groups support the TPP?  This question came to me with great puzzlement at a meeting of ASEAN trade union leaders this week in Kuala Lumpur.  From their perspective, any agreement that raises economic growth is likely to result in additional jobs.  With new markets opening up that were previously closed or difficult and expensive to penetrate, firms have new opportunities for expansion and job creation.

Yet American labor leaders have come out loudly and vocally against the TPP.  Union membership in the United States has been falling for some time.   Labor leaders fear that TPP changes will exacerbate the loss of union jobs in the United States, since many union members are blue-collar workers. 

What is especially strange about the objection to the TPP by labor leaders is that most union members are actually government employees of all stripes, including teachers or public health care employees, who are unlikely to be affected by this trade agreement.  The fastest growing segment of unionization is taking place among services employees.  If the TPP leads to economic growth, the service sector is also likely to expand.  Many of these jobs, like hotel and restaurant workers, are not going to be outsourced.  In fact, it could certainly be argued that easier movement of people across the TPP for business travel and tourism should bring additional jobs to American services union workers. 

We can argue about the quality of such jobs and the appropriate pay scales for workers, but the TPP should not affect either of these elements of service sector union jobs.

Why are some TPP members fighting over specific rules changes for one class of medicines?  One of the most hotly contested arguments in the entire TPP agreement has been about appropriate patent length protections for a class of pharmaceutical medicines.  Should biologic drugs receive 5, 8 or 12 years of coverage before going off patent and becoming available to generic drug manufacturers? 

What is strange about this fight is that biologic drugs like the flu vaccines are extremely hard to manufacture.  They cannot be easily reverse engineered.  Each dose can be unique, as biologic drugs are not simple copies of one another. 

Most TPP members do not have (and may never have) the capabilities to manufacturing pharmaceutical products.  Even fewer will be able to create biologic medicines.  Thus, the fight over patent length protection does not make sense for most members.  However, many countries appear to have seized on this issue as a tool for achieving their negotiating objectives elsewhere in the agreement.  It is more of a bargaining chip than a serious point of disagreement.

Closing a deal is hard.  Given the nature of trade negotiations, the most difficult, politically sensitive issues are left to the very end of discussions.  It is only after the broadest balance of interests is largely hammered out that leaders can make a clear-eyed assessment of their total gains and losses throughout a complex negotiation.  Given the determination of benefits and challenges, countries will decide whether they will continue to defend largely economically indefensible policies or whether such programs will be adjusted in the wake of the TPP.  The time for sorting out such decisions and making appropriate calculations is now.

***Talking Trade is a blog post written by Dr. Deborah Elms, Executive Director, Asian Trade Centre, Singapore***

TPP: The Importance of Resolving the “Sacred” Market Access Issues

I have been told for several years now that if TPP negotiators were stuck in a room with no food and no water, they would rather quickly come to an agreement.  We almost had a real-world test of this theory, as TPP chief negotiators and team members were stuck in New York City.  Fortunately, the snow was lighter than expected and the experiment ended before stocks of food and water ran out.

So, what are the issues that are holding up conclusion of the TPP?  This post will discuss the biggest sticking points—old-school fights over cows, pigs, butter, rice, and pickup trucks. 

These kinds of market access issues continue to confound the conclusion of the negotiations. 

What is particularly amazing about these topics is how long officials have been wrangling over them.  Wendy Cutler, acting deputy USTR, must be one of the world’s most unlucky bureaucrats. She’s been fighting over market access for the same narrow set of products with Japan for what must now have been most of her career.   Up until now, she has continued to bash her head against the same implacable forces with little to show for her efforts. 

When I started tracking U.S.-Japan trade disputes from the 1980s and 1990s, she was pushing for expanded access for autos, apples, insurance, and construction.  All these years later, she is still pushing for access for autos and assorted agricultural products.  (In the interest of full disclosure, we have never met and I grant that she is good at her job—the evidence from some specific Japanese agricultural markets notwithstanding.)

The specific context for negotiations has altered over the decades.  But the prospects for deep and substantial change have never been brighter.  She is currently holed up again with her Japanese counterparts in Washington DC, trying to sort out the bilateral concerns over Japan’s “five sacreds” and autos. 

Japan entered the TPP in July 2013.  When Japan got in, the signs for negotiations were somewhat ominous.  President Obama seems to have thought he had sufficient wiggle room by putting talks over a few key agricultural items and autos onto a separate, bilateral track.  This portion of the negotiations could take as long as necessary to resolve, since conclusion of the bilateral portion of the deal need not finish at the same time as the rest of the topics under negotiation.

Prime Minister Abe, for his part, promised to “take special care of” five sectors:  rice, wheat, beef/pork, dairy and sugar.  These so-called “sacred” sectors were swiftly declared to be off limits for bilateral discussions by Japan’s Diet. 

The deal that both sides thought they had mapped out quickly unraveled.  First, it is impossible for Japan and the United States to negotiate endlessly (or continue to negotiate for another 30 years) on the five sacreds and autos.  The other 10 TPP members need to see what sort of commitments the two players are willing to make.  If Japan, for example, is able to exclude or fail to completely open certain sectors like dairy or beef or butter, then other TPP parties will argue that they, likewise, do not need to fully liberalize their own most sensitive sectors.  Hence, it matters greatly what Wendy Cutler and her team manage to achieve in dialogue with her Japanese counterparts for the entire TPP negotiations.

Second, while the Japanese were likely to be given significant latitude to have extremely gradual market opening, government officials showed up with more than 500 tariff lines of products that were part of the original “sacred” list.  Japan has more than 60 tariff lines devoted to rice--including not just polished rice with current tariffs of more than 777%, but also all sorts of products made with rice. 

Again, quite clearly, for the TPP as a whole this laundry list of products was not going to be acceptable.  If Japan managed to exclude or minimize its commitments across hundreds of product lines, then every other member would try to do likewise. 

Even as the product list was slowly, painfully, peeled back to include a shorter list of products, the timelines for liberalization have remained long and the final outcome is less ambitious than promised.  

Following the Japan-Australia FTA, for example, would allow beef tariffs to remain at 19.5% for 18 years.  Nikkei just reported that beef tariffs in the TPP will be cut from 38.5% to 20%, with (as yet) unspecified plans to reduce further over time.  Such reductions may be significant, but such promises over beef are certainly far from 0 tariffs or a 10 year timeline, as the original levels of ambition specified.

These deviations from high ambition will now likely flow through elsewhere, particularly in market access for agricultural products.  Canada wants very much to exclude or minimize openings in its own dairy supply management system.  Supply management is a complicated system designed to ensure continued production of dairy and some poultry products in the face of strong competitive pressures from the Americans.  Under previous agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the system was not addressed. 

If Japan ends up being able to shelter some or all of its sacred agricultural items in the end, then Canada will likely argue for maintaining, in whole or part, the dairy supply system.  The Americans will say that they need not open the domestic sugar market to greater competition from TPP parties.   Or that the tariff rates on autos into the United States can remain at 2.5% indefinitely.

To get the TPP across the finish line, negotiators need a breakthrough in U.S.-Japan bargaining over autos and the remaining agricultural items.  Until this portion of the final agreement is sorted out, the remaining sensitive products elsewhere cannot be properly addressed.  Every deviation from high ambition encourages similar swerving by other parties elsewhere. 

The stakes are high.  But with a little luck, Cutler may finally be listening to a different tune when she presses her Japanese counterparts to open market access.  After nearly a lifetime of waiting, it is past time to hear something other than “no.”