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Trade Agreements Matter to U.S. Agriculture

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photo credit: US Naval War College

By Stewart Truelsen

In this wild and wooly election year international trade agreements, especially the pending Trans-Pacific Partnership, have come under political fire. It’s hardly the first time.

In 1987, House members, angry over American job losses and the rising trade deficit, narrowly passed the Gephardt amendment to a trade bill. The amendment would have required tough sanctions against leading trading partners that maintained a large trade surplus with the U.S., notably Japan.

Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) was campaigning to be his party’s nominee for president in 1988 by arguing against what he considered to be unfair trade practices. The American Farm Bureau Federation worked hard to defeat the Gephardt amendment and the protectionist policies it embraced. President Ronald Reagan vowed to veto the trade bill if it came to his desk with the amendment intact.

Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.) speaking in opposition to the amendment said, “America needs more growth, more jobs and more trade, not recession, tariffs and trade wars.”

In the end, the Senate voted down the amendment, and Gephardt was unsuccessful in his bid to win the Democratic nomination. That year AFBF’s board of directors established a trade advisory committee of state Farm Bureau presidents.

The current chairman of the AFBF Trade Advisory Committee is Kevin Paap, president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau. He wants to see TPP ratified by Congress and points out that it would boost farm income by $4.4 billion a year with particular benefit to the meat industry.

Farm Bureau’s support of trade agreements has a long history. The organization was represented at the 1945 peace conference in San Francisco that led to the formation of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the organization that preceded the World Trade Organization.

Initially, agriculture was left out of multilateral trade talks. It was a touchy subject with nations that maintained high tariff and non-tariff trade barriers. Farm Bureau worked closely with the Trade Representative’s office to make agricultural trade reform the centerpiece of the GATT agenda in the late 1980s. From this starting point followed trade agreements that have opened markets for U.S. agricultural exports.

In 1992, a major trade negotiation was again front-and-center in presidential politics. Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot made opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement a key part of his independent campaign for the White House. Perot lost the election, and a farm and agri-business coalition that included AFBF mounted a big effort to get NAFTA approved by Congress the next year.

Since then, U.S. agricultural exports to Mexico and Canada have quadrupled, and NAFTA is one of more than a dozen free trade agreements with 20 countries that account for nearly 43 percent of total U.S. agricultural exports. The TPP agreement between the U.S. and other 11 other nations would take further advantage of global economic growth. It would expand market access to nearly a half-billion consumers in the Asia-Pacific region benefiting American agriculture, manufacturing, service and technology sectors.

If history is any guide, trade agreements will continue to be a contentious political issue, especially when they come up in a presidential election year, but they are essential to growing export markets around the world and critical to a thriving American agriculture.

Stewart Truelsen
Freelance writer

Stewart Truelsen is a food and agriculture freelance writer and a regular contributor to the Focus on Agriculture series.