Issues facing cotton, combined with key congressional races, make it “of vital importance” that the industry continue to have a strong political presence, says the chairman of the National Cotton Council.

Funding for the council's political action committee was key to last year's defense of the 2002 farm bill and in support of key trade issues, Robert Greene told producers and industry leaders attending the annual Beltwide Cotton Conferences at San Antonio.

From the budget debate through the process of developing agricultural appropriations, council representatives helped to protect important provisions of the legislation, he said.

“We're thankful that the final budget measure exempted agriculture from any spending cuts,” he said. “We emphasized that the farm bill must remain intact, and that any amendment that would alter its provisions must be rejected. These efforts paid off, and the House bill contained no farm bill amendments.”

The council was also active in presenting the cotton industry's position on payment limits to the Payment Limitation Commission, established by the farm bill to study the implications of further limits.

NCC President Mark Lange was invited by the commission to present the cotton industry's position, and he cited the extraordinary damage to U.S. agriculture and the rural economy that would result from arbitrary and unwarranted limits on farm program benefits.

As a result, Greene said, “We're pleased that we are able to support the commission's final recommendation against further payment limitations during the life of this farm bill.”

He said the council also helped secure a $3.1 billion disaster assistance program that included $50 million in cottonseed market assistance for the 2002 crop; joined other agricultural organizations in urging the USDA to implement the Conservation Security Program as soon as possible; and worked with the Agricultural Coalition for Immigration Reform to develop legislation for streamlining the current immigration process for hiring agricultural workers.

“We also developed a strong response to attacks against the U.S. cotton program inspired by the Environmental Working Group and Oxfam,” Greene said. “We developed a fact sheet for use with congressional contacts to clearly explain that U.S. agricultural subsidies are not responsible for a world price decline.” Foreign journalists were also invited to visit American cotton farmers and the council's Memphis office for a presentation of the facts about U.S. farm program payments.

“I would like to ex tend my personal thanks to the U.S. cotton growers who risked public attack in order to set the record straight on this issue,” Greene said.

The council was instrumental in helping to reach consensus on major provisions of a Central American Free Trade Agreement and communicating its position to the administration and congressional leaders. “Our industry is continuing discussions on how the agreement can benefit the U.S. cotton industry,” he said.

Council leaders are continuing to work on other “critical trade issues,” Greene said, including China's lack of compliance with its agreement for accession to the World Trade Organization, and a concern that China could take advantage of the new U.S.-Vietnam trade agreement by using that country as a transshipment point.

“We're directly involved with the U.S. Trade Representative's office in defending our cotton program against a serious WTO complaint brought by Brazil,” he said, noting however that “a positive relationship has continued with Brazil's cotton industry.”

Pressure from the international community to single out the cotton program in ongoing WTO talks continues to be a concern, Greene said. And new bilateral and multilateral trade discussions that affect U.S. cotton “must be fully evaluated.”

The council's trade agenda is “very crowded,” he said, and “any one of these issues could have a positive or negative impact on our livelihoods. I'm confident we'll continue to rise to each of these international challenges.”

e-mail: hbrandon@primediabusiness.com