Farm leaders make case for quick passage of FTAs

By Sara Wyant

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WASHINGTON, May 12- Four years after free trade agreements with Korea, Panama and Colombia were finalized, Congress and the White House have yet to finish the job. The delay is costing farmers, ranchers and hundreds of other businesses money, testified a host of agricultural leaders during a House Agriculture Committee meeting on Thursday.

 Combined, the Korea, Colombia and Panama agreements would add nearly an additional $2.5 billion to the U.S. economy through agricultural trade. 

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“Our producers have missed out on nearly $10 billion due to inaction on these agreements,” lamented Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.). Lucas wants to see all three agreements voted on by July 1. 

“These trade agreements are not only important to the bottom line of America's farmers and ranchers but the economic health of our rural communities and the overall U.S. economy,” testified American Farm Bureau President Bob Stallman. “There is a long supply chain made up of American workers who get products from the farm gate to foreign consumers. A decline in our exports means a decline in work for those who are a part of that supply chain.” 

While the U.S. delays action on the FTA's, other trading partners are stepping in. 

“The failure of the United States to approve free trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea would result in the U.S. pork industry eventually being out of those markets,” testified Iowa pork producer Sam Carney of behalf of the National Pork Producers Council. Not only would U.S. pork producers forgo an additional $11.35 per head increase in hog prices, but the U.S. economy would lose thousands of jobs, Carney noted. 

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack outlined how other countries are gaining access to these markets. 

Korea recently ratified an agreement with the European Union, which will go into effect on July 1; recently signed an agreement with Peru; already has in place a trade agreement with Chile; and is negotiating with Australia, Colombia, Turkey, and New Zealand. Colombia has finalized agreements with the E.U. and Canada, is a party to the MERCOSUR-Andean Community agreement, and has many FTAs with countries throughout the hemisphere. Panama negotiated an agreement with Canada in 2010 and has recently initialed an agreement with the European Union. Panama already has FTAs in place with Chile and numerous Central American neighbors. 

“Until we complete these three trade agreements, U.S. agriculture will not have a level playing field in these important markets,” he added.  

U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said the Obama Administration started technical discussions with Congress on draft implementing bills and draft Statements of Administrative Action last week. He said the pending trade agreements could be approved before August if lawmakers also reauthorize the 2009 Trade Adjustment Assistance program, which helps workers whose jobs have been displaced as a result of trade agreements.

National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson was the only farm leader testifying in opposition to the FTAs with Korea, Panama and Colombia.  

“NFU has historically opposed free trade agreements on the basis that the agreements were more likely to increase imports rather than open new markets to U.S. goods, as claimed by proponents,” emphasized Johnson in his written testimony. “We have been proved correct. Vague promises of “market access” have been too often empty and factually inaccurate.” 

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