WASHINGTON, Mar. 15, 2017 - Farmers and ranchers are making sure that the White House and Capitol Hill know that they are worried about President Trump’s trade policy. 

Representatives from a series of commodity groups, representing corn, soybean, wheat, rice, cotton and other commodities, are expected to meet with trade advisers at the White House today. Many of those groups are concerned that Trump’s plan to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement will backfire on agricultural exports to Mexico, including corn and rice. 

Yesterday, numerous members of the Senate Finance Committee raised those concerns at a confirmation hearing for Trump’s nominee for U.S. trade representative, Bob Lighthizer, a corporate trade lawyer who served at USTR in the Reagan administration. 

USTR nominee: Negotiators will try to protect ag exports. Lighthizer told the committee that he realizes there is “anxiety and concern” among U.S. farmers, but he said “there's a general consensus that NAFTA needs revision.” Lighthizer also emphasized that he believes it’s possible to negotiate changes in the agreement that would benefit U.S. manufacturers without hurting American farm exports. 

Lighthizer said no decision has been made yet on whether to replace NAFTA with separate bilateral agreements with Mexico and Canada or to renegotiate NAFTA as a trilateral agreement. 

Lighthizer wouldn’t give a timeline for the negotiations, but he told Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., the administration would try to finish the talks as quickly as possible to minimize the ‘uncertainty and anxiety” that farmers and others are feeling. 

Who’s in charge? Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., pressed Lighthizer to say who would actually be in charge of trade policy in the White House. Trump has said that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross would take the lead on trade, but there are also several officials in the White House who will have a key role, including China critic Peter Navarro, who chairs Trump’s new National Trade Council. 

Lighthizer indicated that trade policy is going to be a team effort. He said he expected to work “in a collaborative way with Ross as well as the White House.” 

In another exchange, with Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., Lighthizer promised to be a “champion” for farm exports and said he has a long history of his own with agriculture. Lighthizer noted that he was the lead negotiator in 1983 on a grain deal with the Soviet Union to restore the market lost because of President Carter’s 1980 embargo. 

For more on Lighthizer’s testimony, be sure and read this week’s Agri-Pulse newsletter, hitting in-boxes today.

Meat COOL pitched to White House. Bill Bullard, CEO of R-CALF USA, met yesterday with Trump’s trade council chairman, Peter Navarro, and pushed him to support changing NAFTA’s rules of origin and reinstating country of origin labeling for meat. Bullard says that Navarro asked for more detailed information.

During Lighthizer’s hearing, Pat Roberts urged the administration not to revisit the COOL issue. “We don’t need to go down that road again.” Congress repealed mandatory labeling in 2015 after Canada and Mexico won a WTO case against the regulations. 

Bill seeks to beef up foreign acquisition reviews. A bipartisan Senate proposal would give USDA a permanent seat on the committee that reviews foreign acquisitions of U.S. companies. 

The bill, introduced by Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., also would set new agriculture-related and food-related criteria that the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States uses in studying transactions. Among other things, the bill would require the committee to consider the impact on U.S. access to food as well as food safety and quality. 

The Department of Health and Human Services, which includes FDA, would be added to the committee along with USDA.

“As we think about the future and the growing global population, it’s important to consider who will control the food supply,” said Grassley. Stabenow said “it’s imperative” that foreign takeovers of U.S. food suppliers “face additional scrutiny.”

Consumer groups: GOP health care bill threatens food safety. A coalition of consumer groups say that the Republican health care reform bill would make food less safe by making a 12 percent cut in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The groups say the CDC is critical to investigating outbreaks of food-borne illnesses.

“It simply makes no sense to cut back on prevention as potentially more consumers go without healthcare insurance. It’s a prescription with tragic consequences,” said Thomas Gremillion, director of food policy at the Consumer Federation of America.

The Safe Food Coalition says in a letter to congressional leaders that CDC funding benefits food producers as well as consumers: “When consumers lose confidence in food safety, food producers lose as well.”

Farm, biotech groups seek to delay FDA measures. Farm groups are joining the biotechnology industry in seeking more time to comment on two major documents released by FDA in the final days of the Obama administration. In separate letters to the agency the groups say the Trump administration needs time to develop its approach to regulating biotech products. 

One of the FDA documents provides draft guidance for regulation of genetically engineered animals. The second measure requests comments on how FDA should regulate plants that have been engineered through gene editing. 

The comment deadline is currently April 19. The groups say the deadline should be extended to June 19 at the earliest. An extension would seem to be fairly certain given the sweeping significance of the issues. 

The proposals grew out of a broad effort by the Obama administration to update the federal regulatory process for agricultural biotechnology.

He said it: “Put your money on the Jayhawks.” - Former Sen. Bob Dole, after introducing Lighthizer at his confirmation hearing yesterday. Dole was putting in a plug for his home-state favorite in the NCAA basketball tournament.