WASHINGTON (AP) — President Bush will begin a second term
barely a year after the United States had its first case of mad cow
disease and as Japan and other countries maintain bans on U.S.
beef.

But even before the embargoes, Americans began importing more
food than they export, raising a broad front of trade issues that
will dominate U.S. farm policy the next four years.

Only one cow, a Canadian-born Holstein, was confirmed to have
been infected. But it only took one to prompt Japan and more than
three dozen other countries to refuse U.S. beef, harming export
sales and the farm economy they support. The administration’s
primary agriculture mission since then has been to get those bans
lifted.

A lot more than beef is at issue, however. Two years before last
December’s mad cow case, a surplus of farm exports over
imports — which had been the nation’s bulwark against
even larger overall trade deficits — disappeared. At the same
time, Congress was passing an election-year farm bill with the most
generous government subsidies ever awarded to growers.

Those two developments will drive newly revived talks on trade
liberalization by World Trade Organization members.

“This next term will be a really big term for whoever is
the secretary of agriculture, because these issues come to a head
in the WTO talks, which will probably wrap up in 2007, and
that’s about the same timing of the new farm bill,”
said Gary Hufbauer, a trade specialist at the Institute for
International Economics, a Washington think tank.

Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman has said she would like to
stay on the job, and Bush hasn’t indicated any
dissatisfaction or desire for her to leave.

“I think he’s made clear he will be making decisions
on personnel in the coming weeks,” Veneman told reporters
this week. “In the meantime, we continue to do our jobs as
well as we possibly can.”

Besides finalizing deals to resume U.S. beef exports to Japan
and Taiwan, officials are working on reopening U.S. borders for
Canadian beef, which was banned in May 2003 after a single case of
mad cow was confirmed there. Restrictions have been eased, but not
completely.

Trade will drive debate on Capitol Hill, where international
disputes over subsidies for U.S. producers could prompt lawmakers
to make changes to programs in the 2002 farm bill, although
it’s more likely the changes would come when Congress begins
writing the new farm bill in 2006. Lawmakers expect to begin
hearings on the new bill next year.

Third World countries are demanding in the upcoming WTO talks
that the United States and Europe end their subsidies, not just
those that support farmers but also government help with selling
exports.

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