- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 10, 2000

The humble lemon, a source of cool drinks and sweet desserts, has injected a bitter point of contention in trade policy and soured relations with a U.S. ally in agricultural trade disputes.

A group of California citrus growers is pushing to restrict imports of lemons from Argentina on the grounds that they might bring dangerous diseases into the United States.

The effort has enraged other farmers and ranchers, who fear that restrictions would provoke retaliation against American exports. It also has prompted accusations that the Californians, as in a previous battle over imports of Mexican avocados, are closet protectionists seeking to block competition from foreign producers.

"Blocking Argentine imports would send entirely the wrong signal to the whole world," said Barbara Spangler, executive director of the Wheat Export Trade Education Committee. "Everyone else would do the same thing and hit us."

In June, the Department of Agriculture opened the door to imports of Argentine lemons by certifying that the fruit is disease-free and poses no threat to U.S. citrus groves.

A small group of lemon growers based in California, calling themselves the U.S. Citrus Science Council, responded by filing a lawsuit, still pending, against the change. They said the department ignored evidence that the Argentine produce might carry pests into the United States that would devastate lemon trees in California.

"There was a political agenda here," said Joel Nelson, the group's co-chairman. "The administration believed it needed to encourage Argentine [economic growth] and it simply agreed to let them export citrus."

And, at the group's behest, Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Democrat, inserted a provision into a funding bill that would block the imports from Argentina until a group of outside scientists reviews the Department of Agriculture's new rules.

"This doesn't have anything to do with protectionism," said her spokesman, David Sandretti. "We are willing to accept this fruit into the United States, but we want to ensure that it is safe."

But the lawsuit and Mrs. Boxer's foray into lemon politics have triggered an unusual mobilization of groups that have spent years fighting other countries' use of bogus science as an excuse for keeping out U.S. exports of fruit, meat and grains.

World Trade Organization rules require trade restrictions to be based on scientific reasoning, not political whim. The groups fear the United States, the world's leading prophet of sound science, would find itself on the defensive if the Boxer amendment prevented the lemon imports.

"This would be a slam-dunk for Argentina if they went to the WTO," said Nicholas Giordano, vice president for international trade with the National Pork Producers Council.

The groups also worry that blocking lemons likely would trigger a similar reaction in Argentina, a fear that Washington representatives of Argentine producers have deftly stoked.

"The Boxer amendment would send a message that science will be handled by the U.S. Congress," said Xavier Equiha, a lobbyist for the Argentine Citrus Producers Association.

Argentina may open its market to U.S. pork, a $40 million market in the short term, and to peaches, plums and nectarines, worth an additional $1 million per year. American producers say the rules stand no chance of approval if lemon imports into the United States are blocked.

"We're the ones who have to live with the precedent that they are setting here," said David Miller, director of international programs for the California Tree Fruit Agreement, a marketing group.

Keeping out Argentine lemons also could complicate the decade-long American bid to gain access to Europe for hormone-treated beef, ranchers fear. The United States has argued that there is no scientific justification for keeping out the American product, a point the European Union has vigorously disputed.

Opponents of an import ban also have defended the Department of Agriculture for bending over backward to ensure that Argentine lemons are safe. And they have pointed out that imports would be good for consumers, since the Southern Hemisphere growing season would bring fresh lemons to the United States at times when Americans otherwise make do with domestic lemons that have been refrigerated for months.

Argentine producers, in turn, could expect to export up to $25 million in lemons, depending on how the market develops, according to Mr. Equiha.

While the U.S. Citrus Science Council is fighting to stop imports of Argentine lemons, its members are eagerly exploiting the commercial opportunities offered by the additional imports.

As members of the Sunkist group, a marketing collective that includes 6,500 farmers in California, they approved a plan to begin marketing the Argentine lemons in the United States as soon as the first shipment arrives in Philadelphia next week.

And their opposition has raised eyebrows because many members of the U.S. Citrus Science Council, all in California, also grow avocados. California avocado producers have fought for years to stop imports of Mexican avocados on the grounds that they might contain harmful pests, a campaign that kept the price of avocados higher than in Canada, which permits Mexican imports.

But Mr. Nelson insists that science, not economics, drives the lemon producers' efforts and that the Department of Agriculture needs to consider all the evidence.

"If their science is legitimate, then the citrus can come in," he said.

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