Mar 13, 2006
Asparagus Growers Threaten to Help Sink Andean Trade Agreement

By Dick Lehnert, Assistant Editor

“It is our goal to sink the Andean Free Trade Agreement,” said Alan Schreiber, administrator of the Washington Asparagus Commission. “We are not at all convinced it is a done deal.”

Schreiber spoke March 10 to Michigan asparagus growers at their Asparagus Summit in Rothbury, where he reviewed the damage the American asparagus industry has suffered since 1991 as a result of the Andean Trade Preference Act. The act gave duty-free access to United States markets, and the asparagus industry in Peru grew exponentially.

The idea was to give the Andean Mountain farmers something profitable to grow other than coca, the drug crop.

The terms of that agreement expire this year, which could result in the reimposition of import duties that would help protect U.S. growers. But the Bush administration is backing a free trade agreement that would make the trade preference concessions permanent.

When free trade agreements are negotiated, Schreiber said, provision is made to protect sensitive industries by gradually phasing out tariffs. Asparagus growers want that, or something.

“Our case is clear,” he said. “Everybody agrees the American industry has been injured by the duty-free import gift to Peru. We need to declare it a sensitive item, put tariffs back on and phase them out over time.”

Both the Bush administration and Congress were sympathetic and seemed to agree, but then Peru stated its position, Schreiber said: “Give us duty-free asparagus access or no free-trade agreement.”

“Our government blinked. We thought we’d get something and we got nothing,”
Schreiber said.

Realizing that the free-trade agreement (CAFTA) with Central America passed the House of Representatives by only one vote in a controversial midnight session last July, Schreiber and other members of the National Asparagus Council started looking for the one swing vote that would defeat AFTA.

“We raised a ruckus about this,” he said. “We’ve got some on our side now. We got a strong signal from the White House that they would help us. We told them what we want – a number with a lot of zeros after it.”

That could come in the form of USDA purchases of asparagus for domestic feeding programs like school lunches or some other way.

Until that “strong signal” looks more like action, the search for a swing vote in Congress continues. After the close CAFTA vote, Schreiber thinks a few members of Congress might be convinced that the “low asparagus duties for fewer illegal drugs” deal wasn’t a good one.

“We have record imports of both,” he said.


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