Economy, trade top farm concerns

Polls show the No. 1 priority for President-elect Barack Obama is the economy. For the farm community it’s both the economy and trade.

No doubt all eyes will be on the new president and the new Congress as the nation looks to dig out of the economic crisis gripping our country. And while that process won’t be quick, it should be comprehensive, a plan that reaches all the way down to the farm gate.

Global trade talks have long been exercises in style over substance. They often take place in exotic, seemingly unknown locations, like Doha, the capital of Qatar. Affectionately called the “Doha Round,” many farmers and others for that matter, couldn’t tell you where Doha is, or what became of the “stalled” trade talks that began in 2001. In the word of global trade, the word stalled is code for “nobody wants to give an inch.”

Before Doha, there was the Uruguay Round, which began in 1986. It too stalled early on and was predicated on the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, or GATT. In the end the Uruguay Round gave us the WTO, or World Trade Organization.

All that being said, (and the history lesson aside) farm groups continued to work deals, not so much under the guise of international trade, but with individual countries and large-scale commodities buyers. But the one fact which remains constant is that for the farm economy to “work, grow and prosper,” about 35 percent of what farmers grow must end up on foreign shores.

Exports and trade go hand in hand. That might sound obvious, but for decades now the two have been almost mutually exclusive. All this points to the need for a new approach to world trade talks.

The U.S. is the world’s largest agricultural exporter. The value of U.S. agricultural exports is projected to be $115 billion, one-fourth of farm cash receipts. The production of approximately one out of every four acres of U.S. agricultural land is exported. Grains, oilseeds, cotton and tobacco are 36 percent of the export share, with livestock products at 16 percent, horticulture at 21 percent and the remainder in processed foods.

But the U.S. is also the world’s largest agricultural importer. These imports arrive in the form of horticulture crops such as vegetables, fruits, juices, nuts and cut flowers, as well as meats, grains and sugar.

Agricultural trade highlights the dynamic and expanding world trading system for agriculture, with the U.S. as the single most important producer and consumer. Expanding market access for U.S. products will enhance the economic growth and development that countries realize through increased trade. Farm Bureau is seeking that path.

Trade is an essential component of economic recovery. Turning to protectionism or accepting existing barriers is never an answer. As farmers we remain optimistic the new administration will welcome ideas for a new approach to advance multi-lateral trade negotiations and open markets consistent with the World Trade Organization, especially as world leaders look to hasten global economic recovery.

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