Checkoffs Could Help Promote U.S. Food Products in Cuba


by Jerry Hagstrom DTN Political Correspondent

WASHINGTON (DTN) — The 22 U.S. agricultural research and promotion programs and the 18 marketing order organizations that collect money from U.S. producers will be allowed to use their funds to provide information to Cuba on U.S. ag products and to interact with officials in Cuba, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced early Monday in Havana.

In addition, Vilsack told DTN in an exclusive interview on Friday that he and Cuban Minister of Agriculture Gustavo Rodriguez Rollero will sign a memorandum of understanding that establishes a framework for sharing ideas and research between the two countries, and that he will invite Rodriguez to join him on a visit to one of USDA's Climate Sub Hubs in Puerto Rico in late May.

Rodriguez is expected to accept the invitation to the climate research institute in Puerto Rico where USDA researchers are studying the effects of climate change in the subtropical region and strategies for mitigating these effect, Vilsack said in the interview.

The Agriculture Department is not allowed to use government overseas agricultural market development funds in Cuba. Although checkoff money is not government money, the Agriculture Department's Agricultural Marketing Service supervises the programs that are called checkoffs because farmers and others pay a fee into a research and program fund each time a product changes hands.

The checkoff programs range from pork to potatoes.

“Freeing up” the research and promotion money for use in Cuba should allow U.S. companies to be “more aggressive” in marketing to the Cubans, Vilsack said in the interview.

In a news release, Vilsack called the announcement “a significant step forward in strengthening our bond and broadening agricultural trade between the United States and Cuba.”

“U.S. producers are eager to help meet Cuba's need for healthy, safe, nutritious food,” he said.

“Research and promotion and marketing order programs have a long history of conducting important research that supports producers by providing information about a commodity's nutritional benefits and identifying new uses for various commodities. The agreements we reached with our Cuban counterparts on this historic trip, and the ability for our agriculture sector leaders to communicate with Cuban businesses, will help U.S. agricultural interests better understand the Cuban market, while also providing the Cuban people with science-based information as they grow their own agriculture sector.”

USDA will review all proposed research and promotion board and marketing order activities related to Cuba to make sure they are consistent with existing laws.

USDA said activities that may take place include:

– Providing nutritional research and guidance, as well as participating with Cuban government and industry officials at meetings regarding nutrition and related Cuban rules and regulations.

– Conducting plate-waste study research in schools to determine what children eat and what they discard, leading to improved nutritional information that helps guide school meal requirements, ensuring kids are getting adequate nutrition to be successful in school.

– Providing U.S.-based market, consumer, nutrition and environmental research findings to Cuban government and industry officials.

– Researching commodities' role in a nutritious diet that improves health or lowers the risk of chronic diseases.

– Studying the efficacy of water disinfectants to eliminate/inactivate bacteria on commodities.

– Testing recipes and specific products amongst Cuban consumers of all ages, with the goal of increasing product development and acceptance.

– Studying consumers to measure attitudes when it comes to a specific commodity and consumption and identifying consumer groups based on their behavior, attitudes, and purchasing habits for a particular commodity.

The visit to the Caribbean Sub Hub in Puerto Rico will allow USDA and Cuba's Ministry of Agriculture to exchange information on climate change as it relates to tropical forestry and agriculture, and explore opportunities for collaboration, USDA said.

The two officials plan to explore tools and strategies to cope with challenges associated with climate change, such as drought, heat stress, excessive moisture, longer growing seasons, and changes in pest pressure.

The Caribbean Sub Hub is part of the USDA Regional Climate Hub network that supports applied research and provides information to farmers, ranchers, advisers, and managers to inform climate-related decision-making. The hubs help explain the specific risks of climate change, as well as region-specific adaptation strategies.

USDA noted that the agriculture and forestry sectors in the Caribbean are especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change. The region is exposed to extreme weather events, and much of its population and prime agricultural lands are located on the coast. The Puerto Rico Sub Hub is specifically focused on addressing these unique challenges and supporting the people and institutions involved in tropical forestry and agriculture.

Shortly after the 1959 Cuban revolution, Congress imposed an embargo on Cuba that prohibits most U.S. commercial activities on the island nation only 90 miles from Florida.

The Trade Sanctions Reform Act (TSRA) of 2000 permits the export of U.S. agricultural commodities, but does not allow government export assistance, requires cash payments and does not allow sales on credit.

U.S. agricultural exports have grown significantly since trade was authorized then. In 2014, Cuba imported more than $2 billion in agricultural products including $300 million from the United States.

However, from 2014 to 2015, U.S. agricultural exports to Cuba fell 48 percent to $148.9 million, the lowest since 2002, giving the United States just a 10{f75e9bc95454961d27ea60375533d5bd3793c6b31aa68057771d9b5363a8de8e} market share as Cuba's fourth largest agricultural supplier, behind the European Union, Brazil, and Argentina.

Although Cuban officials have pressed the Obama administration to remove the regulations on agricultural sales to Cuba, U.S. officials have said that is not possible unless Congress lifts the restrictions under TSRA. Obama and U.S. agricultural groups have also urged Congress to end the embargo.


© Copyright 2016 DTN/The Progressive Farmer. All rights reserved.

“Photo courtesy of USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.

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