WASHINGTON, DC, US— The US Grains Council virtually launched its 18th International Marketing Conference and 61st annual membership meeting to tackle post-pandemic market development strategies for 2021.

“While the specter of COVID-19 is not something we ever want to repeat, the lesson it has taught us is that we are resilient and relentless in our pursuit of meeting our mission of developing markets, enabling trade and improving lives,” said Jim Raben, chairman of the USGC.

On Feb. 1, more than 360 attendees listened to presenters speak about the trade landscape and future of global grain markets post-pandemic.

Jack Bobo, chief executive officer of Futurity, a food foresight company, highlighted future trends in the ag industry and spoke about what the global economy may look like as the world emerges from the pandemic.

“Crises like COVID-19 encourage us to think about the present when we should really be thinking about the future,” Bobo said. “Understanding consumer trends and attitudes are critical to getting ahead of the trends. It’s not enough just to respond; we want to be prepared for the problem. We need to seek voices of clarity and have a very clear vision of what we want the future to be like, but we need to be flexible in how we get there.”

Shawn Marie Jarosz, founder and chief strategist of the consultancy TradeMoves, discussed trade trends and export strategies.

“We’ve seen a steady increase of exports leading to a peak in 2018, and we have about $135 billion worth of US agricultural exports going to trading partners around the world,” he said. “Nearly 300,000 US jobs are linked to US grain exports. But there are hurdles, including tariff and non-tariff barriers. Around the world, it is a race to see who can get the lowest tariffs, and we’ve got some work to do in the United States.”

Jarosz also highlighted the role of the World Trade Organization (WTO), saying “it’s important for the agricultural community to show support for it. We have to rebuild trust in the WTO because it’s the heart of trade. It is about a reset. The US must be a leader and come back into the fold.”

Attendees then heard from the USGC’s international directors about how they continue to reach out to grains, co-product and ethanol customers during the pandemic.

“As you are aware, just like yours didn’t there at home, the Council’s work didn’t stop last March,” said Ryan LeGrand, president and CEO of the USGC. “The pandemic forced us all to shift our thinking and engage differently in our markets around the world. It’s vital to consider where the markets are headed, especially given what we are learning about how the coronavirus is impacting the markets around the world.”

While the pandemic offered each market different challenges, the international directors agreed that moving to virtual platforms also had some positive side effects.

Haksoo Kim, USGC director in South Korea, reported that 80% of the USGC’s programming has still gone ahead despite the restrictions of COVID-19. He did reiterate there were challenges and opportunities both with the new operating environment.

“It’s more difficult to get key staff to meet in-person sometimes, but going virtual allows some of those who wouldn’t otherwise have the time to get on a plane to attend a virtual meeting instead,” Kim said. “The biggest advantage of virtual programs is that this has brought an expansion of customers.”

Stephan Wittig, USGC director in Mexico, agreed, saying he was impressed how quickly people made the switch to virtual and how USGC staff has continued to work with grains stakeholders.

“We’ve found in Mexico that this process has actually built even more trust between the Council and its customers,” Wittig said.

Manuel Sanchez, USGC regional director in Southeast Asia, said positive shifts in ethanol policies in Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines and a new aquaculture trial already yielding groundbreaking data on high-protein distiller’s grains with solubles (DDGS) in Indonesia.

“Our markets are resilient and our customers trust us,” he said. “One of my biggest takeaways is that while other groups left the region during COVID, we rolled up our sleeves and stayed in the market, and they appreciated that. It’s made our relationship even stronger and I predict the best is yet to come.”

The USGC conference will continue through Feb. 3 with Council Advisory Team (A-Team) meetings. A-Team leaders and sector directors also will offer their recommendations and set USGC priorities for the coming year.