WASHINGTON – Free trade agreements topped Ohio Farm Bureau leaders’ list of concerns when they arrived on Capitol Hill last week for their annual presidents’ trip.
Farmers know more about trade than any other group of people, Rep. John Boehner told them.
Congress is reviewing two trade agreements, one with Australia and one with several Central American countries.
Although Farm Bureau’s position is noncommittal until it takes a closer look at the economics, a director of congressional relations said the agreements are a priority.
Farm Bureau is cautious because it fears the negotiations were done for political reasons, since this is an election year, rather than economics, American Farm Bureau Federation’s Chris Garza told the Ohio group.
Feeling the effect. Agriculture is the country’s top exporting sector, Boehner said, and it’s been a near-record year for those exports.
Farmers will feel the benefits of these trade agreements, the representative said. Particularly Ohio farmers, because one-third of the state’s agricultural production ends up in overseas markets, said Boehner, R-Ohio. He is also vice chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture.
For this reason, the negotiations are important, Boehner said, but the current round of World Trade Organization talks will not move quickly because the heart of the matter is export subsidies.
The European Union has to come to the table, he said. There’s no way it can continue to pump ag subsidies into its farmers’ pockets, Boehner said.
It also overproduces and then dumps products into the world market for next to nothing, he said.
Focusing attention. Cracking down on the European Union was a theme among legislators in Washington.
The European Union is the real problem, said Rep. Cal Dooley, D-Calif., also a House Ag Committee member.
In addition, he said developing countries need more attention.
Ninety-six percent of the world’s population live outside America’s borders, Dooley said.
Future markets are outside the United States, he emphasized. Look around, he said, this country is about as well-fed as it can get.
The current trade policies work against the interests of developing countries, he said.
It’s to the United States’ advantage if the standard of living in poor nations increases. If these countries have a little more of the market, they will be wealthier and then will buy the food the United States produces, Dooley said.
Fair trade? Although proponents argue free trade will allow greater access to foreign markets, not everyone agrees it is the right move.
“Supporters of these agreements claim that free trade agreements open new markets for U.S. exports, yet our trade deficit gets worse and worse,” Ohio Democratic Rep. Sherrod Brown wrote in a press release.
“These free-wheeling trade pacts export U.S. jobs, not U.S. goods,” said Brown, who met with two county presidents during the lobbying trip.
Brown further criticizes the agreements, saying they exploit cheap foreign labor and “line the pockets of multi-national corporations.”
Sugar debate. Rep. Dooley said the United States and other nations need to “join hands and back away from the sugar policy,” which continues to be controversial in both pending trade agreements.
While visiting the Australian Embassy in Washington, minister-counselor of agriculture Fran Freeman expressed disappointment sugar was excluded from the free trade agreement with her country.
Australia exports 4 million tons of sugar a year and is the world’s fourth-leading sugar exporter, Freeman said. Although the United States does not export sugar, it is the fourth largest country for sugar imports, according to the American Sugar Alliance.
Under the agreement, Australia’s current access to sugar will remain the same.
Freeman said it sets a bad precedent for fair trade to single out a certain commodity.
But the American Sugar Alliance testified at a U.S. International Trade Commission hearing in January 2003 that eliminating the sugar tariffs also sets a negative precedent.
If the United States included sugar in the free trade agreements with Australia, it would then have to include it in agreements with other countries, the alliance said.
The amount of sugar would flood U.S. markets and result in reduced producer prices and income and job loss.
“These costs would far outweigh any overall gains to the economy resulting from tariff elimination,” the alliance testified.
(Reporter Kristy Hebert welcomes reader feedback by phone at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 23, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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