Commentary: Now is the time to push for trade agreements

Issue Date: July 13, 2011

After nearly five years of political struggle, there is light at the end of the tunnel for completing trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama. This news arrived on the heels of a signed agreement between the U.S. and Mexico on a cross-border truck deal that resulted in Mexico cutting tariffs on a number of our commodities, with the promise to end tariffs as soon as the program is fully implemented. (See story, Page 4.)

Ratification of agreements with Korea, Colombia and Panama would create significant opportunity for California farmers and ranchers to expand market share in these parts of the world. For this reason, we join with the American Farm Bureau Federation effort to send Congress a clear message from our grassroots that now is the time to finish these deals.

Action can't come soon enough. Our competitive advantage is in jeopardy. Australia, Chile, Canada and the European Union are aggressively moving in to the three nations and taking potential U.S. market share. Other countries also see the benefit of trade agreements.

But the path to ratification is far from clear and your help is needed to influence our state's congressional delegation. In last week's "mock" committee markup in the House and Senate—a symbolic action that clears the way for a vote in both chambers—the deals passed in pure partisan fashion, although in a different way than you might think.

In the Senate, it was the Democrats who unanimously supported the agreements, with every Republican opposing the South Korea deal. In the House, the complete opposite took place: Republicans supported the agreements and Democrats opposed.

Why the mismatch in party position between chambers?

The answer lies in the debate over Trade Adjustment Assistance, a program to train workers displaced by trade that is strongly supported by President Obama and his party. TAA was included in the Senate version of the South Korea package, whereas the House did not include it in its version.

Farm Bureau has not taken a position on TAA, and we look at the current partisan infighting as a distraction. That is why we need our members to step in and let Congress know that further delay is bad for California farmers and ranchers. Expect a Farm Team Action Alert as well as specific calls to action that will vary by county, depending on your congressional representative.

The top reasons for action are straightforward. Ratification will boost the economy, add jobs and, as already mentioned, improve our ability to compete internationally.

AFBF, supported by economic analysis performed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, estimates that annual direct U.S. agricultural exports to Korea, Colombia and Panama would increase by nearly $2.5 billion per year upon full implementation of the three agreements.

In total, the agreements are expected to increase direct exports from California alone by $239 million per year. The increased marketing opportunities for California farmers and ranchers would add an estimated 2,150 jobs to the state's economy.

Once ratified, the agreements would eliminate tariffs and other barriers on many California agricultural products heading to the three countries. We will see a notable increase in trade for a range of California farm products, including beef, fruits, vegetables, nuts, rice and processed foods.

Farm Bureau has a strong record of supporting fair trade in the policies our members set. We also realize that there can sometimes be losers in agreements such as these, and we have always taken a strong interest in addressing inequities that affect commodities that may appear to be on the losing side of a deal.

For example, in the House committee markup the case of the cut flower business was raised. As cut flower growers know all too well, U.S. dollars intended to curb the drug trade in Colombia have inadvertently caused the Colombian cut flower industry to flourish at the expense of our state's growers. We will continue to work with the administration on measures that will allow trade to benefit all growers.

With your help, we can see this through to the finish. Congress must act immediately on the free trade agreements, and there is no one better to make the case for agriculture than California farmers and ranchers.

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.