Op-Ed: Fair and fear-free trade

By Guest Author

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By Roger Johnson, National Farmers Union President

As farmers and ranchers, we face plenty of challenges: from nature, from prices and markets, from foreign competitors, and some from policy. Fear of potential retaliation from our trading partners should not be one of those challenges. Recent efforts by members of the agriculture community to cave to our trading partners have needlessly hurt American tomato farmers.

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President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had it right when he said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” American farmers shouldn't have to live in fear of our trading partners; instead, we should be protected to exercise the rights granted us by the trade agreements our government has negotiated and signed.

NFU is a strong supporter of free and fair trade according to the trading rules our government has negotiated. That support includes the right of our fellow farmers and ranchers to exercise their legal rights under our laws without fear of retaliation from trading partners.

The recent situation of the “changed circumstances review” being conducted by the U.S. Department of Commerce on whether to terminate a sixteen-year-old suspension agreement on fresh tomatoes from Mexico is a case in point. U.S. law has long provided the right of domestic producers (whether agricultural or industrial) to seek the termination of existing orders or suspension agreements if an order or agreement is not wanted. 

Domestic tomato producers, led by producers from Florida and including producers from across the country, filed an anti-dumping petition in 1996 regarding tomato imports from Mexico.  The U.S. International Trade Commission and the U.S. Department of Commerce made preliminary determinations that found that the dumping of Mexican tomatoes into the U.S. market caused injury to our domestic industry. As a result, Mexican producers sought a suspension agreement instead of continuing the investigation, which they were granted. Fast forward 16 years to today. Our domestic tomato industry no longer views the suspension agreement as a viable solution to their problems. U.S. tomato farmers and processors have initiated a legal process to terminate the suspension agreement, which is entirely within the domestic industry's right to do.

Certain Mexican producers have said that removal of the suspension agreement would result in a tripling of tomato prices. That would confirm the fact that something very unusual is taking place: dumping. Tomato prices wouldn't much change unless there is massive influx of underpriced tomatoes entering our domestic market. This is a clear sign that the suspension agreement isn't doing what it's supposed to do - protect our domestic tomato producers - and ought to be ended.

Mexican officials have threatened to retaliate against U.S. trade if the suspension agreement is lifted. The officials refer to the notable trucking dispute, which resulted in retaliation against U.S exports, that retaliation was authorized after Mexico had pursued dispute settlement proceedings, obtained a dispute panel finding against the United States, and then failure by the United States to comply. The current situation is nothing like the trucking dispute because there has not been a North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) or World Trade Organization (WTO) panel determination against the United States - if anything, the Mexicans were found to be at fault 16 years ago. The Mexican claim is either a threat to violate their obligations to the United States under NAFTA and the WTO or bluster.  

Strangely enough, many farm and agriculture groups in the United States have written to federal government and trade negotiators to urge them to side with Mexico on this issue out offear of these outlandish retaliatory threats. This is not a sustainable position and is unfair to our domestic tomato producers. American farmers deserve fair and fear-free trade.

NFU supports the rights of farmers to protect their interests consistent with U.S. law and this tomato case is no different.  We support the efforts of domestic tomato producers to have their rights respected and urge the Obama administration to continue to stand strong on behalf of U.S. tomato farmers.

About the author:Roger Johnson is the 14th President of the National Farmers Union. Prior to his post at NFU, Johnson held the position of Agriculture Commissioner in North Dakota for 12 years and his family farms in Turtle Lake, N.D.

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