The first container ship sailed from the Port of New Orleans since the hurricane departed at midweek. And officials say grain and oilseed shipments on the Mississippi River are picking up speed. But they warn the resumption of normal operations for the important export terminal still is weeks away.
Exports are the lifeblood of U.S. agriculture. But between natural disasters and quirky global trade policies, the stability of U.S. farm exports never seems certain.
There were a couple of positive notes sounded on the trade front this week ... first on a new deal with an Asian partner ... and then with renewed calls for a wider trade pact that could open markets on an international scale.
Earlier this week, representatives from Taiwan's Agricultural Trade Goodwill Mission signed letters of intent to trade with the United States. Taiwan agreed to purchase 559 million bushels of U.S. wheat, soybeans and corn in the next two years.
Senator Saxby Chambliss, R-Georgia: "With this memorandum, Taiwan becomes the sixth largest trading partner with the United States."
The agreement comes a few months before crucial trade talks resume at the World Trade Organization's meeting in Hong Kong. This December, the organization's 148 nations, along with its new chief, Pascal Lamy, hope to complete a new global trade pact. Lamy, the former European Union trade commissioner, says the objective for Hong Kong is a deal that is two-thirds of the way to concluding the Doha Round.
Global trade discussions started four years ago in Doha, Qatar, where ministers set a goal of completing an agreement by the end of 2006. But, in 2003 in Cancun, Mexico, talks among WTO countries failed. Disputes among affluent nations and developing countries over issues like farm trade caused the conference to collapse.
In Hong Kong, ministers would like to cut subsidies and reduce tariffs, with emphasis on freeing up agricultural markets for developing countries. According to official estimates, richer nations pay around $350 billion in annual subsidies to their farmers.
Cotton has been key in agricultural trade disagreements. Poorer nations say subsidies in countries like the U.S. cause artificially low international prices and hurt their farmers. A group of developing nations called the G-20 has been the chief critic. Formed at the Cancun summit, the G-20 accounts for 20 percent of global agriculture, 26 percent of agricultural exports and 17 percent of imports of farm products.
With mounting political pressure from groups like the G-20, U.S. and European negotiators have pledged to step up efforts to get a deal in agriculture trade. Officials for the two trade powers have insisted their farm groups would accept a WTO agreement that reduced barriers in such a way to create more export opportunities for all countries.