fb - voice of agriculture
February 2004

Measuring Fairness on Agricultural Trade Issues

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

There are a few clear and simple truths when it comes to agreements governing the international trade of agricultural goods. Whether trade agreements are worldwide, regional or even bilateral in scope, there are always going to be winners and losers.

There are a couple of ways to measure the ups and downs of trade agreements – what I call the big and small scales. At the American Farm Bureau Federation, we believe by far that the more accurate trade measurement is attained using big scales that weigh the performance of the whole of American agriculture and how we stack up against other nations. But we also like to measure some potentially troubling sectors with smaller scales to help highlight commodities that might benefit from extra attention during the negotiation process.

This approach, I believe, is the chief reason our trade positions continue to be credible and highly respected. At AFBF, we focus on the big picture, while still keeping the smaller pictures in sight.

The Big Picture

International trade touches each and every one of us in agriculture. To say that trade is a challenging issue for a general farm organization is a gross understatement. Unlike commodity-specific groups, AFBF does not have the luxury of pre-judging trade agreements based only on the expected effects on one single commodity.

AFBF must balance the effects of proposed trade agreements on a dozen or more commodities. Just as it would be highly unlikely that AFBF would ever support a trade agreement that allows one commodity sector a windfall of benefit at the expense of all others, it is also highly unlikely that we would ever oppose a trade agreement that offers genuine opportunity for most all commodities even though it might mean some increased competition in a few areas.

That context is exactly where a couple of AFBF trade policies – approved in mid-January at our 85th annual meeting – come into play. Since there is considerable interest – and some mischaracterization – of our recently approved trade policy, I believe it is important to put the provisions in their proper context.

The Delegates Speak

On one hand, delegates basically said that U.S. trade negotiators should work to minimize adverse impacts trade agreements may have on import-sensitive crops. From my perspective, that policy may contain new words, but in practice it isn’t much of a change from our previous position. We always encourage our trade negotiators to seek the best and fairest deal possible, and, yes, that has always included asking them to secure provisions or concessions to mitigate the impact of trade agreements on import-sensitive U.S. commodities.

On the other hand, delegates stated that all commodity sectors should be on the table during trade negotiations, and they said that multilateral trade negotiations through the World Trade Organization should be the organization’s top trade priority. U.S. agriculture’s best opportunity to address critical trade issues, such as market access and domestic subsidies, they said, is through the multilateral, worldwide arena, rather than through regional or bilateral talks.

So, there you have it. Rather than a shift in our trade policy, I’d truly call it a sharpening. And, that is exactly what AFBF, as an organization, needs as our nation heads toward crucial trade matters such as the Central American Free Trade Agreement, a proposed bilateral agreement with Australia and the chance of a new multilateral agreement through the WTO.

Overall, our delegates approved a thorough and well-thought-out position to guide AFBF in the trade arena this year. This comprehensive trade policy will further build the organization’s integrity and respect in regard to the many trade issues that lie ahead. That point is undeniable – no matter which scale you might choose to measure agricultural trade.