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Rice growers want preference on sales to Iraq
Associated Press, March 6, 2004
WASHINGTON - U.S. rice growers want policy changed to favor food sales to Iraq from countries that supported the war, especially after losing a potential sale to Vietnam, a nation that was not a coalition member. The issue grew more critical Thursday, when the United Nations World Food Program issued a tender for another 152,500 metric tons of rice to be shipped in April and May. Reaction to Thursday's rice tender was mixed. U.S. producers had hoped the Iraqi Grain Board, not the U.N. program, would handle the sale. But the contract specifications were altered from previous tenders, which producers think is a response to issues raised during their trip to the Middle East. The USA Rice Federation also predicted the Iraqi Grain Board would itself issue a similar tender in the coming days. Vietnam won the last sale because their price was cheaper; U.S. growers say they can't beat the price but that their rice is of higher quality. "We just think what's fair for Halliburton ought to be fair for us," said Paul Combs, a rice farmer from Kennett in southeast Missouri. "It's a growing market, and it's a market for rice that we grow here. We just thought it was wrong that Vietnam got in on the deal." So far, producers and their supporters in Congress aren't getting answers. Several farm-state lawmakers reprimanded the White House for the 70,000-ton purchase from Vietnam in a letter last month, but they haven't received any response. "It's very frustrating, particularly given the fact that rice is a staple of the Iraqi diet," Missouri GOP Rep. Jo Ann Emerson said late last month, after questioning Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman about the policy during an Appropriations Committee hearing. "You would like to reward, if you could, those entities or countries who were helpful first," Emerson said. Rep. Marion Berry, D-Ark., said the administration's lack of action "makes a clear statement of disrespect to U.S. rice-producing states." A group of producers traveled last month to Amman, Jordan, where they made a case to the Iraqi Grain Board. "They understood our frustration and our interest, but they're not exactly the ones calling all the shots at this time; that's more of a Coalition Provisional Authority call," said Ben Noble, lobbyist for the USA Rice Federation. A coalition spokesman did not return a telephone call seeking comment from The Associated Press. Last year, the United States barred companies from countries opposed to the war from getting lucrative contracts to help rebuild Iraq. The decision excluded Germany, France, Russia and Canada, all of them opponents of the war. However, reconstruction efforts are separate from efforts to supply farm products to Iraq. Since expiration last year of the United Nations' oil-for-food humanitarian program with Iraq, the coalition has had an arrangement with the U.N. World Food Program to purchase food for Iraq through the end of June. The World Food Program has no such restrictions on which country's producers should get the business. "We don't have a dog in that fight," said Judith Lewis, director of U.S. relations for the World Food Program in Washington. "The World Food Program is operating under a memorandum of understanding with the Coalition Provisional Authority and the (Iraqi) Ministry of Trade. There is no stipulation to say the coalition gets first shot at it," Lewis said. In the United States, rice growers see a huge potential in Iraq, which they explain is really a new-old market. Before the Gulf War in 1991, Iraq was the No. 1 market for U.S. rice, buying on average 345,000 metric tons annually. Roughly half of the U.S. rice crop is exported, and today the top customer is central America and the Caribbean. The leading U.S. rice producers are in Arkansas and California, followed by Missouri, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas. Contracts under the old oil-for-food program drew similar criticism from farm-state lawmakers last year, although for different reasons.
MGR Archive 7.3.2004
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