By Stewart Truelsen
From its beginning almost a century ago, the American Farm Bureau Federation has been a strong advocate for international trade. The organization’s first president, James R. Howard, wondered what it would be like if a ship could steam up to his Iowa farm, so he and his neighbors could sell their surplus corn on world markets. This was in 1922 and Howard contemplated how the corn could be made into mush to feed starving children in Russia.
Howard’s wish wouldn’t come true until 1959 when the St. Lawrence Seaway opened in the Upper Midwest, but Farm Bureau went ahead with programs to move surplus corn to Russia without the seaway.
In 1949, Farm Bureau’s international trade policy called for American leadership in the reduction of tariffs, import quotas, cartels, discriminatory practices and other barriers to the expansion of trade.
A few years later, the Agricultural Trade Development and Assistance Act of 1954 was signed into law by President Dwight Eisenhower. The export law was better known as Public Law 480 and later as Food for Peace. What’s not well-known is that the idea for PL 480 came from a Farm Bureau trade specialist, Gwynn Garnett. Garnett served during the war as a tank commander and then as director of the food and agriculture division of the U.S. military government in Germany. After his service he joined the Farm Bureau staff and suggested the plan to distribute food to a war-torn world.
U.S. exports of farm commodities took off in the 1970s, rocketing 15 percent in fiscal year 1971 to a record $7.8 billion, or $50 billion in today’s dollars. In 1978, Farm Bureau sent a 15-member trade delegation to Geneva, Switzerland, to review multilateral trade negotiations under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. When the Tokyo Round concluded the following year, agriculture was included in the final negotiations for the first time.
Farm Bureau persuaded President Ronald Reagan to end the grain embargo against the Soviet Union in 1981. Initially the embargo was implemented out of national security concerns by President Jimmy Carter. But the embargo proved ineffective and only served to stimulate crop production in South America.
Farm Bureau also pushed hard for elevating the diplomatic position of U.S. agricultural attaches, opening new U.S. trade offices and expanding the role of the Special Trade Representative, which became the U.S. Trade Representative, a cabinet-level position in the executive branch. The office includes a chief agricultural negotiator.
When the World Trade Organization replaced the GATT, Farm Bureau continued to work closely with U.S. trade negotiators to reduce tariff and non-tariff barriers and expand agricultural trade. Multilateral trade negotiations under the WTO have been stalled for some time, but Farm Bureau has actively supported efforts to achieve free trade agreements that were bilateral or multilateral with several countries involved.
One of these agreements was the North American Free Trade Agreement, implemented in 1994, which removed barriers to agricultural trade between the U.S., Canada and Mexico. Renegotiations for NAFTA began last August. Farm Bureau is seeking to protect the gains achieved in agricultural trade and the removal of remaining barriers.
Last year the U.S. ran a trade deficit of $566 billion overall with the rest of the world; however, we had a $21 billion trade surplus in agricultural products, and there has been an ag trade surplus every year since 1959.
It’s little wonder that the American Farm Bureau has always been focused on trade and determined to see markets expand. Exports have been the key driver of higher net farm income and have helped farmers build a strong American agriculture that benefits all of us.
Stewart Truelsen is a food and agriculture freelance writer and a regular contributor to the Focus on Agriculture series.