By David Meiss
Across the state, harvest has bumped up to full throttle, with, tractors, combines and semis running overtime. Still, many consumers don’t realize that commodities like corn and soybeans stop at more than just the local elevator. Unfortunately, those stops in the commodity chain still don’t include countries like Colombia, South Korea and Panama — a move that already is hurting America’s economy and job prospects.
For many consumers, the pending free trade agreements (FTAs) symbolize big businesses flexing their muscles and might to get what they want — and fewer American jobs in an already struggling U.S. economy. However, in reality, signed FTAs actually will help stimulate the economy, not only with export income, but also with jobs.
In fact, every billion dollars in sales from these FTAs equals 9,000 American jobs. Between the three pending FTAs, that’s 27,000 jobs — and that doesn’t take into account growing markets and economies of the countries with which the U.S. is trading.
Colombia is a perfect example of a country with exceptional trade potential, something I saw firsthand when I visited the country in March of this year. As a developing country, Colombians are continually moving up from lower to middle class status. Colombia is building homes and offices, developing infrastructure and increasing its need of grains and meat for its growing population. As a top grain producing state and home to Caterpillar, John Deere, Navistar and many other companies, Illinois can help supply Colombia with the trucks, earth moving equipment, livestock feed and foods it needs to continue to grow.
What’s more, the products that Colombia produces are complimentary to the U.S. In other words, Colombia regularly exports flowers, tropical fruits and coffee — all products the U.S. does not produce.
Even with the potential for added jobs and an economic boost, the FTAs have been in a holding pattern for the last four years, costing the U.S. export money daily. In fact, not having signed FTAs with Panama and Colombia already is damaging agricultural and other exports from the U.S. — and costing thousands of jobs. In 2008 alone, U.S. exports to Colombia fell 50 percent. In the same year, the U.S. sold $600 million worth of corn to Colombia, but by 2010, U.S. exports fell to $200 million, as Argentine and Brazilian corn received more favorable tariff treatment than the U.S.
The U.S. also is losing export dollars to its neighbors to the north, with Canada supplying wheat, beef and other manufactured products to Colombia, despite the fact that Colombian officials told us during our trip they prefer U.S. products to Canadian products.
Much also has been said regarding dangerous union and working conditions in Colombia — and the fact that a U.S.-Colombia FTA would further hurt labor relations. Some have gone so far as to say it wouldn’t be morally right for the U.S. to even consider entering into a trade agreement with Colombia. The fact is, the U.S.-Colombia FTA is a “WTO-plus” agreement, requiring Colombia to meet higher labor, environment and sanitary and phytosanitary standards than are currently in place.
Additionally, President Santos has cracked down on union violence in recent years. Today, Colombians enjoy safer streets than in years past. During my visit to Colombia earlier this year, I witnessed families walking dogs, riding bikes and taking walks, where, just a few years ago, sidewalks would have been bare.
FTAs with Colombia, South Korea and Panama are important to the U.S., both economically and strategically, helping to solidify relationships with our allies. And, with the potential to garner additional U.S. jobs, safer work conditions for Colombians and increased trade dollars for the U.S., the question of whether the FTAs are the right thing for the U.S. isn’t such a tough question after all.