Back in school, when somebody else had something good for lunch, you might find yourself offering to swap something in your lunch for the good stuff in theirs. “I’ll trade ya!” was a common refrain at the lunch table. Of course, most times it was kids trying to trade carrots for cupcakes, but that didn’t stop them from trying.
The same principles apply in agriculture today. The U.S. grows an abundance of good stuff that other countries want. We ship corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton and other commodities overseas. Agriculture, in fact, is the lone sector of the U.S. economy enjoying a trade surplus.
President Obama is currently visiting Latin America. He has indicated one of the goals of his trip is to increase trade. This is a positive step since analysis indicates 9,000 jobs are created or saved in the U.S. for every $1 billion dollars in trade. A delegation from Illinois Farm Bureau just returned from Panama and Colombia, and it came back with a simple recommendation: the President needs to send the Free Trade Agreements, already negotiated with these countries in 2006, to Congress for approval.
There are strong economic, geo-political and labor benefits resulting from the FTA’s. The U.S. has a transportation advantage to Panama and Colombia because of our extensive river network leading to the Mississippi and out into the Gulf of Mexico. They want our grain and heavy equipment. Illinois stands to gain significantly because corn is the largest ag import into Colombia and because of our heavy equipment manufacturers, such as Caterpillar, John Deere, CASE IH and Navistar. The trade is complimentary. Coffee, sugar, seafood and cut flowers are exported to the U.S.
However, Colombia has grown tired of waiting for the U.S. to approve the FTA. They have entered into trade agreements with other South American countries and as a result our corn market has fallen from $600 million in 2008 to $200 million in 2009. Colombian Ag Ministry advisor Andres Espinosa told the group “you are losing market share fast and will lose almost everything if you don’t approve the FTA.”
Making matters worse, Colombia and Panama have long been allies of the U.S. and officials feel betrayed by the fact the U.S. has not signed the agreement after five years. Espinosa said “the U.S. has been our most important friend and ally. I can’t believe this is happening.”
With an enemy dictator in neighboring Venezuela it is hard to understand why our government would not want to expand trade and business with our allies.
In Bogota, citizens now feel safe to move about the city. The growth and development taking place in both countries is amazing. The FTA provides provisions to improve labor and human rights. Can we risk disappointing nations that consider us friends and turn down the jobs that will come with the expanded trade?
The President deserves accolades if he returns from Latin American with a serious intent to move these agreements forward. If not, it would appear his spring break trip was for pleasure and not business.