By Steve Cornett
If we followed the golden rule in international trade, there would be less outcry from cattle producers about the Administration’s decision to declare the Brazilian state of Santa Catarina free of foot and mouth disease and potentially eligible to ship beef and pork to the U.S.
You’ve heard about it. Or you can read about it in the U.S. Cattlemen's Association's news release.
Brazil has had a long-standing WTO ruling that U.S. cotton subsidies violate trade rules. Last month, the Brazilian government announced it would impose new tariffs on a long list of U.S. products—products with an even longer list of politically powerful patrons.
It took about a week for the U.S. trade negotiators to cave and announce we would recognize Santa Catarina’s lack of recent FMD activity and begin a process that might allow fresh meat imports from that state.
On the one hand, I’m all golden rule-ish about that. I mean, how would you USCA members in, say, the Dakotas, feel if Texas, Nebraska and Kansas ranchers refused to allow your feeder cattle into their feedyards because a few bison in Wyoming have brucellosis?
But, alas, the golden rule is not really an important part of trade policy. Governments with special interests to protect have a tendency to require a bit more “scientific certainty” on stuff they import than they feel they should have to provide on the stuff they want to export.
And Japanese cars and U.S. beef, as per my point in a recent blog, are just one example.
Here’s how I would apply the golden rule to the Brazilian thing. If FMD were discovered in Hall County, Texas, our USDA system of control would be to attempt to contain the spread to that region. If I was in Hall County and you were in Pike County, Mo., I couldn’t ship you my cattle.
USDA would not quarantine you, except perhaps temporarily while they assessed the size of the outbreak. That strikes me as fair. I’m not sure why a producer in Missouri should have to suffer because of FMD in Texas.
So long, that is, as there were systems in place to keep that outbreak contained. So that’s how, I reason, we would “want to be treated,” golden rule-wise. So we should treat others the same way, right? So, I say, “Sure. If Santa Catarina is free of FMD and can provide assurances it can stay that way, let ‘em at us.”
And if they can’t provide those assurances, then we shouldn’t take a chance. No matter what the politics of cotton and medical supply exports. FMD, given current trade rules, is too dangerous to fool with.
I know lots of people believe Brazil will bury us in beef if we relax the FMD rules. I know lots of people believe Brazil is incapable of keeping FMD regionalized. On the former, my golden fool, I mean, rule, self says if they can grow beef better and cheaper than me, they should be doing it and I should be doing something else. I didn’t say that’s the best route for me; I just said it’s logical and it’s the path to a more just and affluent world.
On the latter point—how safe Santa Catarina beef really is—I guess we have to trust USDA’s judgment. But I’m nervous that this Administration—peopled with people apparently even more golden rule foolish than Jimmy Carter and me—is apparently not going to consider that safety in the vacuum of science. They apparently will look at the trade-off. They will, apparently, accept X amount of risk of FMD for Y amount of gain for cotton subsidies and auto exports.
That, I don’t like.
Either Santa Catarina beef is safe, or it’s not. If it is, we shouldn’t have been using the FMD excuse to keep the stuff out. If it’s not, we shouldn’t be letting it in, whether they buy our cars or not.
That’s the sort of protectionist thinking that is keeping U.S. beef out of much of Asia, and the naïve among us expect more from our governments. To me, if you say you’re going to accept OIE standards, you accept OIE standards. You don’t look for legal loopholes you can use to force concessions on other matters. I guess it’s the way it’s done and been done, but I don’t like it.
It’s not the way business is done in the cattle business. Well, I guess I take that back. I’ve done business with guys who do business like that, but not twice. And it’s no way to build a trusting, win-win relationship.
I know that Brazil is a scary competitor, and I know most cattle people would sure like to keep them out of our markets. But if we can get Asia opened up and eating beef, there will be more than enough market to go around.
In the long run, the way to apply the golden rule to FMD is to develop good, traceable vaccines and control programs that don’t bankrupt livestock industries in entire countries.
But for now, we need to be very careful. I presume Santa Catarina is fine. I mean, I’ve never seen any evidence of incompetence from any government agency, have you? I will admit that the threat of FMD entering the country from some other source—the soles of hiking boots from Uruguay perhaps, or yak jerky hidden in some traveler’s bags or, maybe, in a terrorist’s back pack.
But I don’t much like feeling like beef’s interests may be compromised for the good of other products. Do you?
Steve Cornett is editor emeritus at Beef Today. You can reach him via e-mail at email@example.com.
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