(June 3) Imports of fresh Chinese fruits and vegetables are not commonplace in the U.S. today, but trade negotiators anticipated the danger of import surges from China when striking a deal for the country’s entry into the World Trade Organization.

Evidently anticipating China’s desire to expand fruit and vegetable exports, the U.S. signed a 1999 agreement with China that allows caps on import surges.

According to language from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service, China has committed to a product-specific safeguard that allows the U.S. to restrain increasing imports from China that “cause or threaten to cause market disruption” for 12 years after WTO accession.

After that, current U.S. safeguard provisions remain available.

Recent press reports indicate that concern over China’s future export potential may be well founded.

A May 29 Associated Press story said China’s move into the World Trade Organization may signal an acceleration by farmers into fruits and vegetables and a move away from grains.

The story said foreign competition from the U.S. and other countries is expected to put millions of small grain farmers out of business in China, while the country’s cheap labor will swing wide open the door to horticultural production and exports.

Experts say China’s cheap labor supply could give its country international advantages in the production of vegetables, fruits and nuts. That would counteract the expected torrent of imported corn, wheat and soybeans from the U.S. and other countries.

China’s agriculture exports last year jumped 25% to $16.7 billion compared with U.S. exports of $54 billion in 2001. China’s horticultural exports to the U.S. were $381 million in 2001, up from $335 million in 2000.

Most of China’s exports to the U.S. are processed fruits and vegetables.

China’s exports of apple juice to the U.S. totaled $32 million in 2001, down from $37 million the previous year. China’s fresh garlic exports to the U.S. were $4 million, with canned mushrooms valued at $16 million. Nut exports totaled $28 million.

Meanwhile, USDA figures show U.S. exports of horticultural products to China totaled $161 million in 2001, up from $114 million in 2000.

While China may be increasing output of some produce items, Desmond O’Rourke, president of Belrose Inc., Pullman, Wash., said China is responding to low global apple prices by pulling out acreage.

Industry sources have said China faces significant liabilities before it can become a world class exporter, including poor roads and substandard infrastructure, especially in interior growing regions.

China also has suffered setbacks with publicity about overuse of pesticides. Experts say Chinese sales of broccoli to Japan could be cut by 50% this year because of stepped-up inspections and diminished consumer demand.

Jim Cranney, vice president of U.S. Apple Association, Vienna, Va., said Chinese shipments of apple juice to the U.S. are subject to anti-dumping duties, which may be increased on July 1 by the Commerce Department.

He said Chinese fresh apple exports to the U.S. have to overcome significant U.S. industry phytosanitary concerns before they become reality.

Cranney said that while China has made the issue of fresh apple exports to the U.S. its No. 1 priority — it already has requested a pest risk assessment from USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service — it will likely take years of study to determine the pest risks posed by Chinese apples.