Trade matters to farmers, proven in the latest record agricultural exports of $140.9 billion figures released. But what role will Congress play in expanding those export numbers looks to be coming to the forefront in the next few months.
The most likely to surface first is what to do with county-of-origin labeling. The divisive issue has plagued legislators the past two farm bills and again looks to rear its ugly head in this year's already tangled mess of farm bill negotiations.
Canada and Mexico have successfully challenged the law requiring meat to be labeled as well as challenged a subsequent law which goes further in asking for the label to identify each step of the production process (i.e. Born in Mexico and raised and slaughtered in the United States).
In a Politico event Nov. 14, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said the WTO panel said that the United States has a right to label, but needed to be more specific. This latest law provides that and Vilsack said the WTO process "should play itself out" rather than have Congress inject itself into the situation now.
Vilsack said we can't have opponents "run to Congress to have rules changed in the middle of the game" every time something comes up on the trade front.
Really? I thought that's what Congress was there to do. To protect the interests of its constiuents.
Don't get me wrong, this issue is highly emotional and has been for over a decade. But don't we owe it to the agricultural industry to make sure trade sanctions aren't imposed just to stand for something that may or may not eventually be deemed trade distorting?
Dale Moore, executive director of public policy at the American Farm Bureau Federation, said that COOL can be supported if it is WTO compliant. "Our belief is this needs to get resolved. We don't need retaliation with our best, biggest beef and pork export markets."
John Bode, CEO at the Corn Refiners, said that in staying the course on COOL as Vilsack suggested leaves the U.S. in a situation easily considered non-compliant and facing major retaliation from Canada and Mexico.
Corn refiners alone send $700 million of product a year to Mexico. Canada has also indicated it would retaliate against corn. With corn processing in Canada, there wouldn't be enough corn for the refineries.
"This is the sort of economic havoc that can result from failing to meet our trade obligations," Bode said. "I'm not opposed to COOL, just respectfully insist it be in line with our international trade obligations."
Minnesota Farmers Union President Doug Peterson said Canada "should leave COOL alone" as it is a law tested and on the books for years. "Everyone sat here in the 2008 Farm Bill and signed off on it."
As indicated during opening comments of the farm bill conference committee, it appears COOL is a hot topic. The question remains if legislators have heard enough on one side of the debate or another to push forward a change or limit changes before WTO makes its final decision which could be years down the road.