California's cornucopia of fresh fruits and vegetables accounted for about half the state's $2.8 billion in agricultural exports last year, but those sales are handicapped because of trade barriers unique to these crops, according to a report released Monday by the California State World Trade Commission.
Producers of these crops also find themselves caught in cross-fires from escalating trade disputes and penalized by trade barriers unique to perishable commodities, the study said.
In 1985, for example, the United States imposed a punitive tariff against pasta subsidized by the European Economic Community, and the EEC retaliated by slapping similar tariffs on lemons, 58% of which come from California, and walnuts, all of which come from California. Talks to resolve the long-running pasta-citrus dispute adjourned Monday in Brussels with prospects described as improved.
Typical of the unusual barriers fresh produce encounters are seasonal tariffs imposed by Canada, California's third-largest customer, to protect its own growers. And until this year, Japan had allowed cherries to be imported only after July 1--one month after California's harvest peak, effectively limiting U.S. cherry exports to Washington state, where the crop ripens later. Japan finally agreed to move back the date to May 25 this year, opening a potentially multimillion-dollar market to California cherry growers for the first time.
The report, "California Agriculture: Barriers to Trade," concludes that U.S. negotiators are more skilled at advancing the export of basic farm commodities--such as cotton, grains and soybeans--that are the backbone of Midwest agriculture. While cotton is California's leading farm export (rice is fifth, beef sixth and wheat eighth), the rest of the top 10 are specialty crops: almonds, oranges, grapes, walnuts, prunes and lemons.
The 313-page report, ordered by the state Legislature, seeks to support the state's agricultural exports, which have slid from $4.2 billion in 1981 to about $2.8 billion last year, as tough negotiations are getting under way in Switzerland among the 92 members of the 40-year-old General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, or GATT. The United States and Canada also are working against an Oct. 5 deadline to forge a free-trade treaty that the commission's report concludes would, on balance, benefit California agriculture.
The report--which focuses on Canada, Mexico, the Common Market and developing countries that are GATT members--is the last of three. Previous volumes, released last summer, concentrated on trade restrictions imposed by Asian Pacific nations and on harmful trade practices carried out by California itself.
Completion of this catalogue of grievances is designed to help pinpoint for U.S. negotiators the specific trade barriers that need to be removed, said Anne Chadwick Burton, the commission's agricultural trade specialist, who directed the project. "It's important that California voice its concerns loud and clear," Burton said.
California farm leaders responded Monday by forming the Cal-Ag Committee on International Trade, headed by Bruce J. Obbink, president of the California Table Grape Commission. .
"California specialty crops need a collective voice in Washington if we are to gain any ground in these trade talks," Obbink said in a statement. "California agriculture's diversity makes it imperative that we band together."