By Zippy Duvall
Agriculture will be keeping a close eye on the next rounds of the North American Free Trade Agreement renegotiation this month in Mexico City and Washington, D.C. For farmers and ranchers across the country, spring is a time of planning, planting and praying for a fruitful year. But if our leading export markets hang in the balance, a cloud of uncertainty hangs over a time that usually is filled with optimism and hope. The impact of U.S. withdrawal from NAFTA could be devastating for farms and ranches of all sizes.
Robust trade agreements boost farm prices and help sustain farms and ranches. Twenty-five percent of American-grown products go to customers outside our borders, and in 2017 nearly a third of those exports went to our North American neighbors. Mexico and Canada are top export markets for all types of commodities—from grains to dairy, from poultry and livestock to fresh fruits and vegetables. NAFTA has been a real success story for U.S. agriculture, and it continues to be. Last year, ag exports to Canada and Mexico topped $39 billion—that’s $1 billion higher than in 2016.
While NAFTA has a track record of working for agriculture, we can’t be certain that we’ll keep those customers if we back out of the agreement or lose the gains we’ve made. You don’t have to look far to see how markets adjust when better deals come along. No company or industry is exempt from changes in the market. Companies that were once pillars of their industries have crumbled when they couldn’t keep up with the changes taking place around them. For example, there’s no longer a Woolworth’s in every downtown. You can’t get a phone plan with MCI, and you can’t book a world-class flight on Pan-Am. But folks still have plenty of means to shop, communicate and travel. In the same way we’ve adjusted and taken our business elsewhere, our customers in Mexico and Canada will go to other countries for their soybeans, wheat, apples, poultry, and much more, if trade with us no longer remains a good deal all around.
That’s not to say that we have a perfect trade agreement with NAFTA. We’ve seen a lot of change in the 20-plus years since it was signed, and agriculture would like to see modernizations that improve on the strong trade partnership with our neighbors. All our trade agreements must be based on scientific standards that advance innovation in our industry. Free trade involves give and take, and U.S. agriculture can’t do all the giving. That’s why we’re looking to these NAFTA talks to reduce tariffs and modernize sanitary rules. We have seen this kind of progress in other trade talks like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and are confident we can get there again.
In the middle of these negotiations, I am reminded of a Bible verse in Ecclesiastes: “The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.” I often look to God’s Word for guidance on all kinds of issues. It’s amazing how much wisdom in the Bible applies to our business and professional lives, as well as our spiritual lives.
No matter how good a job we do in American agriculture, winning the “race” is not guaranteed. We are not promised success. But all of us get our time and chance to be successful, if we are smart enough to see the opportunity in front of us and act on it.
If the U.S. pulls out of NAFTA, our competitors around the world certainly will see their opportunity to swallow up the markets we would leave behind for the taking.
America’s farmers and ranchers are swift, strong, wise and learned. There’s nothing we can’t do, including feed our nation and much of the world. It’s up to us to make the right decisions to ensure we make the most of the opportunities we have.
We must remain in NAFTA and keep working to make it better, so America’s farmers and ranchers can continue the export growth we’ve seen in our closest markets.
Vincent “Zippy” Duvall, a poultry, cattle and hay producer from Greene County, Georgia, is the 12th president of the American Farm Bureau Federation. You can follow him on Twitter @ZippyDuvall.