fb - voice of agriculture
March 2003

International Trade Comes to a Crossroads

Bob Stallman
American Farm Bureau
By Bob Stallman
President, American Farm Bureau

The poet Robert Frost once penned a verse about two roads diverging in the woods and taking "the one less traveled by." That choice, he wrote, "made all the difference." Agriculture faces a similar crossroads in regard to international trade.

On one hand, there are some who emotionally argue that protectionism and closing down our borders is the road to take. They deny the reality that evolving technology in communication, transportation and other areas are truly making our world a smaller, more-connected place.

Then there are those who embrace the road to global opportunity. They look at the international marketplace with enthusiasm. They believe Americans, given a fair chance, can compete with any nation on quality, quantity and cost.

Farm Bureau is among those that believe in the potential advantages offered by the international trade of agricultural goods.

Like Robert Frost, sometimes it feels like we are on the road less traveled. We believe, however, that our path is truly the one that will make "all the difference" for America's farm and ranch families.

The Road Less Traveled

Farm Bureau believes international trade agreements designed to reduce trade barriers and create fairer trade set the stage to move American agriculture forward.

As an average, we U.S. farmers earn 25 percent of our farm income from exports. U.S. agriculture depends on exports for more than one-third of all sales. During fiscal 2001, the United States exported $52.7 billion in agricultural goods and imported $39 billion, creating an agriculture trade surplus exceeding $13 billion.

While global trade inequities still exist, those numbers prove America's farm and ranch families already depend on a healthy flow of international trade. Our goal is to make sure future trade agreements allow us to compete on a more level playing field.

In July 2002, the Bush administration unveiled a World Trade Organization proposal that aims to increase market access by reducing tariffs, eliminate export subsidies and provide a fair method for limiting trade-distorting domestic support levels. Compared to proposals from Europe and elsewhere, this is certainly a road "less traveled," but it is one Farm Bureau supports as vital since ongoing WTO agricultural negotiations will map out ag trade for years to come.

Full Speed Ahead

Farm Bureau believes a successful outcome from WTO negotiations represents U.S. agriculture's best opportunity to open new markets and address unfair trade practices that hurt our farmers and ranchers. The U.S. proposal pushes aggressively for real reform. The proposal recently submitted by the European Union, meanwhile, regurgitates old, protectionist trade formulas and retains inequities that exist between trading countries.

WTO members will try to take these diverse proposals and blend them into "modalities" or targets for achieving the objectives of the negotiations. Expected to be finalized as early as the end of this month, these targets will establish the parameters for the final WTO agreement to be reached by January 2005.

Decisions made now could mean the difference between a thriving agricultural industry in the United States, and Americans depending more on imported food, frequently grown by lesser-trained foreign farmers under haphazard food safety and quality standards.

Although international trade holds great potential for U.S. agriculture, that does not mean that all trade agreements are good. For example, Farm Bureau continues to monitor free trade negotiations with Australia. We are pushing for the dismantling of a number of Australian trade barriers to U.S. agricultural exports before any agreement is signed.

Farm Bureau recognizes that any trade agreement entered into by the United States needs to offer more benefits than sacrifices for our producers.

The world marketplace is growing. Agriculture certainly has opportunity due to that growth, and Farm Bureau is working to give America's farmers and ranchers a fair shot in the action.

The road we choose in coming days, months and years regarding trade agreements and trade negotiations will certainly make all the difference.