- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 16, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

President Obama recently told his Economic Recovery Advisory Board that he wants an “aggressive trade policy that says we can compete, we’re not afraid of competing, we want to make sure we are competing in a fair way, and that other countries are not seeing the U.S. markets as simply the engine for their growth without reciprocity.”

While the U.S. economy is beginning to grow again, the president told his advisers they need to find new models for economic growth. A successful model already exists for trade, and it is the American family farm. Not supporting agricultural trade will dim one of the most widely acknowledged bright spots for U.S. trade and the economy.

Agriculture has shown consistent year-on-year export growth, generating critical dollars and U.S. employment opportunities while helping trade partners enhance their own commercial capacity. The sale of high-quality U.S. wheat to Nigeria, for example, not only benefits the U.S. economy, but the exported wheat has helped milling grow to be that nation’s second-largest industry, creating jobs and additional wealth - a clear win-win situation for buyer and seller.

Yet the lack of movement on trade pacts is hampering similar success in other markets, and shortsighted trade actions are fostering retaliation against U.S. agriculture. Inaction on a clear trade policy makes U.S. agriculture less competitive and puts at risk millions of dollars in potential income and job creation in the United States.

For example, failure to ratify the U.S.-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement - signed Nov. 22, 2006 - could significantly disrupt U.S. agricultural exports to Colombia, which in 2008 reached a record $1.67 billion, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Failure to ratify this free trade agreement (FTA) could cut current U.S. wheat sales to Colombia by more than half because Canada is close to ratifying its own FTA with Colombia. That would grant Canadian wheat and other agricultural products duty-free access to Colombia, thus overcoming our freight advantage and leading to a potential loss of $87 million annually for U.S. wheat growers.

We believe the administration and Congress want the United States to be able to compete fairly and on a level playing field. That is why trade agreements - especially for agriculture - should not be treated as political footballs. They are about ensuring an adequate and affordable global food supply, as well as about jobs, economic security and balance-of-trade issues.

Nearly half of the wheat we grow and much of our farm production is destined for foreign markets. For that reason, until a successful World Trade Organization treaty can be negotiated, bilateral agreements such as the U.S.-Colombia FTA remain the only viable path to maintaining and increasing market access for U.S. agricultural products. Losing that opportunity would only undermine the thin economic incentive for American farm families to expand crop production - a mistake with very broad implications - not the least of which includes jobs in rural communities and U.S. ports.

“If there’s anything that would help us with this economic downturn, it would be to promote trade,” Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, said in a recent Reuters news agency story. We agree. A definitive U.S. trade agenda, in addition to enhancing U.S. agricultural export competitiveness, would more effectively support the administration’s humanitarian agenda, as illustrated in the case of wheat exports to Nigeria.

The U.S. wheat industry applauds State Department policy papers and work plans outlining U.S. intentions on food security and agricultural development. However, the administration must recognize that agricultural trade helps partner countries attain self-sufficiency and build capacity. The administration must issue a clearly defined trade agenda and give agricultural trade the place it has earned in economic recovery and stimulus.

U.S. agriculture can compete on a level playing field in any market, as the president says we should. We cannot afford to allow such a successful economic model to wither away.

Alan T. Tracy is president of the Arlington-based U.S. Wheat Associates, the U.S. wheat industry’s export market development organization. He served in the Reagan White House as special assistant to the president for agricultural trade and food assistance.

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