Take free trade — please

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When the international trade portion of your resume is as thin as Ron Kirk’s — you do remember that Kirk, the former mayor of Dallas, is now U.S. Trade Representative, don’t you? — it’s likely you’d stress personal ideals over professional accomplishments when talking about your new job.

Kirk did just that in a May 22 speech to the U.S. Meat Export Federation. As Barack Obama’s trade ambassador, Kirk explained, he’d be guided by “a raging sense of pragmatism and a practical sense of urgency.”

Golly, I’m pretty familiar with the English language but I have no idea what that gibberish means. Maybe it’s Texican for Hey, I’m two months into this job so don’t complain until I actually do something.

If so, fair enough because Kirk is stepping into one of the darkest, most unexplored corners of the Obama White House where few even talk about trade let alone promote it.

Banana peel

And for good reason; trade policy — and, specifically, the North American Free Trade Agreement — was one of the few banana peels Obama slipped on during his otherwise textbook-perfect 2008 presidential race.

More importantly, since taking office the job-crushing recession has pushed trade even farther down the administration’s to-do list. Events, however, keep trying to raise it back up.

The H1N1 swine flu outbreak clobbered U.S. pork exports and, in turn, U.S. hog markets, despite no known link between pigs, their meat and the disease.

The global flu reaction did give Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack another chance to promote a proposed — and still going nowhere after five years and $130 million of federal promotion — mandatory, national animal identification program as a way to quickly counter regional and global market concerns.

Just as the scare was building, April 29, a U.S. Department of Agriculture report sternly warned American ranchers and farmers that the continued lack of a national livestock tracking system might soon cost the beef sector $13.2 billion a year in lost sales to other nations, like Canada and Australia, who already have trace-back programs.

Government intrusion

Most U.S. producers, however, see mandatory livestock ID as a costly, unnecessary government intrusion into their business.

USDA admits that only 510,000 of 1.4 million U.S. livestock farms have voluntarily signed on to the current premise ID program.

Indeed, NAIS, the acronym for USDA’s ailing National Animal Identification effort, is an almost perfect example of what Kirk and his band of raging pragmatists face.

NAIS, say trade experts, is an imperative for future growth of U.S. meat exports and yet there aren’t 10 cowboys west of the Potomac — let alone the Pecos — in any state that support it.

Can Kirk and his “practical sense of urgency” — or more truthfully, anyone — solve the dilemma? Not likely; NAIS is headed to the back burner to simmer for the summer.

Plenty of company

It will have plenty of company. Already there are the pending free trade deals with Peru… and Panama… and Columbia… and (yawn) Korea and no one in Congress wants to stir any of ’em. Then there’s that messy stew called Doha.

The front burners warm a few kettles of fish, too. One has our NAFTA partners, Canada and Mexico, claiming America’s finally implemented country of origin labeling law is trade restrictive; both want the World Trade Organization to broaden it or boot it.

How confusing?

And that’s just Kirk’s crowded starting point. Just how confusing is it for this former mayor? The last ag trade press release posted on the trade rep’s Web site (www.ustr.gov/) is dated Nov. 1, 2008, three days before his boss’s election.

Then again, maybe Kirk’s urgent inaction simply means that the boss prefers no trade deal over a bad trade deal. How, ah, pragmatic.

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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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