As April shapes up as a big month for trade discussions—“fast track” trade promotion authority for the president, Trans Pacific Partnership negotiations with Japan, agricultural trade with Cuba—U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack on Thursday explained why he sees trade agreements as so economically important to the U.S. and its trading partners.
First, trade agreements result in new, growing markets for American farmers and their products, both in the short and long term, according to Vilsack.
“In terms of developing countries and trade, we’ve seen a marked increase in U.S. activity with developing countries, and actually, as a percentage, it has increased more quickly in last several years than with developed countries,” Vilsack told the audience at the Global Food Security Symposium, presented in Washington by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He added: “Over time, our history has suggested we will see increased trade opportunities as well for the countries on the other side of the negotiating table. That certainly was the case in NAFTA, where we saw significant increases in Mexico and Canada and the U.S. In fact in the U.S, we are seeing since NAFTA a 145% increase in ag exports.”
Listen to an excerpt of Vilsack's remarks at the April symposium here:
New Compromises on Old Battles
Second, trade agreements establish some common ground on thorny issues, allowing countries to move forward economically with that framework in place.
“I think we have an extraordinary opportunity with the Trans Pacific Partnership to take an important step,” Vilsack said. “This agreement is important for a multitude of reasons, because for the first time we are going to institute in an agreement itself as opposed to on the side … high standards in terms of labor, high standards in terms of the environment, high standards in terms of the enforcement of those provisions as a part of the trade agreement. It’s a much more comprehensive trade pact.”
In terms of American agriculture, Vilsack added, the TPP is expected to lower the tariffs on U.S. products, making them more attractive to overseas buyers.
It will also “create more of a science-based system” for reviewing and regulating agricultural products. Of course, science, food, and agriculture can be a hot topic at home, too. "There are folks with serious questions about genetically engineered crops," Vilsack acknowledged. "There's also no question there that the technology can significantly increase productivity, reduce our reliance on pesticides, and in the long run, will be part of a strategy for feeding the global population."
Lastly, trade agreements create the cross-pollination of ideas and practices that can lead to improved food production and agricultural innovation, according to Vilsack.
“The key here is giving people a sense of what is possible and what can happen with a more advanced approach toward agriculture. And by ‘advanced,’ I don’t necessarily mean just biotech—I mean just basic agricultural efforts that have been around in this country for decades that aren’t necessarily accepted practices in developing countries,” Vilsack said. “As we deal with this growing world population, as we deal with climate and its impact on agricultural production, there is no question it’s going to have an impact. There is no question that we globally need to be prepared for this, that we need to be taking steps right now to figure out how we are going to mitigate-- how we are going to adapt to--a changing climate so we can meet these food needs.”