KEARNEY — International sales of U.S. beef are expected to reach a record value of $8 billion in exports this year. So why do National Cattlemen’s Beef Association leaders still list trade as their top issue of concern?

Mostly, it’s because of additional opportunities that could be tapped now and in the future.

“In the next 10 years, there will be an additional 300 million people (in China) moving into the middle class. That’s the size of this country,” NCBA Vice President Marty Smith, an Ocala, Fla., area rancher and attorney, said at Wednesday’s opening session of the 2018 Nebraska Cattlemen’s Convention in Kearney.

Many of those consumers will make new buying choices, Smith said, with autos at the top of their list and “what to eat” second. That’s a huge market opportunity for U.S. beef producers.

“The demand is there. Getting the access ... is the key,” he said.

Smith explained the reason agriculture is a target during trade disputes such as the current ones involving U.S. tariffs on steel, aluminum and other products, and retaliatory tariffs focused on corn, soybeans and pork.

“Agriculture is one thing we can do in this country that can have a trade surplus and beef is a big part of that,” he said, noting the 2017 beef surplus value was $1.6 billion.

NCBA Immediate Past President Craig Uden of Elwood told the Hub that trade always will be on the forefront for beef producers.

“What really has benefited the beef industry is the quality,” Uden said, which is 80 percent choice or prime. “Internationally, our beef is so different. It sets itself apart.”

The NCBA leaders said growing demand for that quality in Japan and South Korea has been a boost for U.S. beef exports.

There is a U.S.-South Korea free trade agreement that will allow tariffs to go down faster for U.S. beef than for products from other countries, Uden said. An agreement with Japan on beef will ratchet down a 38.5 percent tariff to 26 percent after Jan. 1 and eventually down to 9 percent.

Japan is among the 11 members of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, the new version of the Trans-Pacific Partnership from which President Trump withdrew the United States soon after taking office in 2017.

Uden said the goal should be to have bilateral trade agreements with Japan and the other countries with the same stipulations as in CTPP.

When asked if the United States should rejoin CTPP, he said, “it’s not gonna happen, which is why we have to push for the agreement with Japan.”

“We have a president really focused on foreign trade issues,” Smith said. “We don’t always agree with him, but this is the first time anyone has gotten their (trading partners) attention.”

Smith predicted that for NCBA “the next 10 years could be the most exciting there has ever been and also the most challenging.”

U.S. beef is the best product in the world, he added, and that won’t change.

Uden said another issue on the trade front is getting Congress to approve the U.S., Mexico, Canada trade agreement recently signed by the leaders of the three countries as a renegotiated North American Free Trade Agreement.

He also predicted that “fake meat” will be at the top of NCBA’s 2019 agenda with the need to get in front of a growth of products that are plant based and now cultured from animal cells in labs.

“We know it’s going to come. We wish we wouldn’t have to address such a thing,” Uden said, noting that the two pressing issues are what such products are named and who will hold them accountable for truth in marketing.

He referenced dairy industry issues with non-dairy products marketed as “soy milk” or “almond milk.”

“You have to have the right agencies, FSIS (Food Safety Inspection Service) and USDA,” Uden said, to ensure there is truth in nutrition and production information for alternative food products, as well as in the marketing.

Smith opened his remarks Wednesday by describing his family’s long history of cattle production in Florida. He explained why he is involved in NCBA and the issues it tackles on behalf of beef producers.

“I never want to have to tell my kids there’s no place for them on the ranch,” he said.

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