An artless deal made for trade

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Sonny Perdue USDA
U.S. Agriculture Secretary appointee Sonny Perdue (US Embassy in Uruguay photo by Pablo Castro)

What Trump Administration appointees lack in reticence they make up for in certitude. Take Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue.

Just two weeks after being shown his stately office at the USDA’s South Building, Perdue announced a major makeover of it: he invoked a 2014 Farm Bill directive to create a new USDA post, undersecretary of trade, by eliminating an existing post, undersecretary of rural development.

Administration officials described this “demotion of Rural Development as an ‘elevation,’” explained the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), because the new trade salesperson “would report directly to the Secretary …”

But that’s selling baloney as steak, commented the NSAC, because “All undersecretaries, including the undersecretary of rural development, already report directly to the Secretary” so “the assertion … is misleading …”

Chief advocate

Not to Secretary Perdue who mentions daily that his main goal as USDA boss is “to be American agriculture’s unapologetic advocate and chief salesman around the world.”

As such, creating an Undersecretary for Global Ag — even if you have to strip American rural communities of, first, their megaphone inside USDA and, later, their funding — is, well, apparently the way it’s going to be.

Besides, this is America’s destiny, explained Perdue when announcing the undersecretary swap May 11.

“The men and women of American agriculture are hardy people,” he said, “many of whom were born into the calling of feeding America and the world.”

Sonny the Salesman knows you have to sell the sizzle to sell the steak.

Trade goals

The USDA redo fits perfectly with the Administration’s broader goal to revamp key U.S. trade agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, and the hope to negotiate more bilateral deals like the just-announced, 10-point deal with China that will reopen the nation to American beef exports.

Typical of this White House’s announcements, though, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, went overboard in his bragging about the China deal. It was a “herculean accomplishment,” claimed Ross, that amounted to “more than has been done in the whole history of U.S.-China relations on trade.”

That was too much even for the never-in-doubt editorialists at the Wall Street Journal who noted May 15 that the “deal was modest” and the move to open its beef markets was mostly a restatement of a “promise” made by the Chinese premier last September.

But the agreement does signal “Mr. Trump has pulled back from protectionism,” added the Journal — much to the relief of American farmers and ranchers.

U.S. ag exports, after all, have averaged about $140 billion per year since 2010. Still, if the White House is now in a “trade-is-good” phase — which easily could change the next time our mercurial president hops on Twitter — bigger trade deals, like the renegotiation of NAFTA, pose enormous challenges that won’t be sorted out over the dessert course.

Milk trade

For example, American dairy groups want Canada to dismantle its milk quota system so U.S. fluid milk and dairy products can, literally, flood north.

What would American negotiators have to give the Canadian prime minister and his liberal colleagues for them to agree to that deal? Hint: The moon and stars would be the starting point, not the endpoint.

So, too, with Mexico where negotiators now are at an impasse on a standing U.S. deal that allots Mexico 53 percent of all U.S. refined sugar imports. The U.S. wants that promised access cut to 15 percent.

Mexico’s reply, understandably, is “Hey, pal, we had a deal.”

Moreover, its ag minister defiantly noted May 16, that if the U.S. imposes import duties on any of the now-in-limbo Mexican sugar, he would “be willing to react in-kind with duties … possibly targeting U.S. fructose.”

That would slap U.S. corn growers silly because Mexico buys 79 percent of all American high-fructose corn syrup exports (1.1 million metric tons out of a total 1.4 MMT in calendar year 2015). Artfully, however, the Mexican ag minister never mentioned any wall.

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Alan Guebert was raised on an 800-acre, 100-cow southern Illinois dairy farm. After graduation from the University of Illinois in 1980, he served as a writer and editor at Professional Farmers of America, Successful Farming magazine and Farm Journal magazine. His syndicated agricultural column, The Farm and Food File, began in June, 1993, and now appears weekly in more than 70 publications throughout the U.S. and Canada. He and spouse Catherine, a social worker, have two adult children. farmandfoodfile.com

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