“It’s our government’s policy to do all we can to encourage additional movement toward free trade,” Mississippi’s senior senator said at the annual Conservation Tillage Cotton and Rice Conference at Robinsonville.

The chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee said he has been pleased that the Senate has ratified several free trade agreements that the administration has negotiated, and believes the pending Central America Free Trade Arrangement holds additional sales opportunities for U.S. agriculture.

The negotiations process has been completed for the agreement that includes Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala, he said. “All are markets for U.S. rice, so it’s important to your industry that these agreements were successfully negotiated. I predict the Senate will approve it.”

Tariff rate quotas were established in the agreement for both rough and milled rice, which “will insure access and increased growth for U.S. rice sales,” he said.

The administration plans to renew discussions to include Costa Rica in the agreement, as well as the Dominican Republic, in order to enlarge trade opportunities for U.S. growers, Cochran said. “These agreements are good for our country’s economy and the economies of the countries we negotiate with.”

He said the Bush Administration is continuing to salvage the Doha development agenda of the World Trade Organization, which was dealt a setback in last year’s Cancun, Mexico talks when several countries, including Brazil, opposed using the agreement drafted by the European Community and the United States. as a basis for future negotiations.

“They’re now being challenged to become more actively involved,” Cochran said, “and I think the administration is on the right track. Their attitude is, full speed ahead, keep the pressure on, and push for action.”

The U.S. trade team is working closely with Mexico and Europe to identify and resolve problems between the countries, he said. “We’re facing claims of dumping rice in the Mexican market…and I believe the U.S. Trade Representative’s office is doing a good job of identifying and addressing these concerns.

“You need to keep them advised and informed through your commodity organizations and be actively involved in the process. These efforts are paying off for the rice industry, and with your help, I believe they will continue to do so.”

In Europe, Cochran said, U.S. rice has become more competitive as a result of margin of preference tariff calculations. “This provides U.S. rice with a potential for unlimited growth in the European market.”

Responding to questions, he said he feels “the outlook is good” for a World Trade Organization agreement to be reached by 2005. “We have some very aggressive, talented negotiators, and with the leadership of the administration and support by the Congress, I think we can be successful.”

Newly-emerging competitor nations, such as Brazil and India, are seeking leadership roles in shaping the content of international agreements, Cochran said. “If you want to make a worldwide agreement work, you have to have everyone involved in it and supporting it. We do have some difficult and challenging problem areas — but they are not insurmountable.”

e-mail: hbrandon@primediabusiness.