White House Tries to Calm Agriculture Concerns About Trade Policy

By Casey Wooten

The Trump administration is working to allay the concerns of some in the agriculture industry that new trade deals negotiated by the White House could leave U.S. agriculture exports behind.

Ray Starling, special assistant to the president on agriculture, agricultural trade and food assistance, told reporters March 21 that the White House has been meeting with representatives of the industry over the past two weeks to discuss concerns over the U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and the proposed renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

“I think a lot of people on the ag front feel like what we got out of our NAFTA was generally good and that we certainly don’t want to regress on any of the gains that we made there for ag,” Starling told reporters after a “National Ag Day” event organized by the Agriculture Council of America.

Starling is one of the few voices for agriculture in Trump’s orbit, and his comments shed light on how agriculture could play a role in the Trump administration as it gears up for trade, regulatory and budgetary changes.

Agricultural trade is one of the bright spots in U.S. exports, and has largely benefited from the reduced trade barriers created by NAFTA. The U.S. exported about $38.6 billion in agricultural goods to Canada and Mexico in 2015, according to the Department of Agriculture. More than 25 percent of all U.S. agricultural goods are shipped overseas. The U.S. exported about $38.6 billion in agricultural goods to Canada and Mexico in 2015, according to the USDA. More than 25 percent of all U.S. agricultural goods are shipped overseas.

Assuaging Fears

Starling said the White House was aware of concerns by some in the agriculture industry that new trade policies on major agriculture trading partners like Mexico and China could hurt U.S. crop exports.

“We understand the angst in the ag community based on some of the things they may have read or seen related to trade,” Starling said. “So the last couple of weeks we’ve been cycling ag groups in and out of the White House to sort of make their case and talk about what their No. 1 priorities are.”

Farm groups such as the American Farm Bureau Federation and the American Soybean Association opposed the Trump administration’s January withdrawal from the 12-nation TPP deal, saying the agreement could have increased U.S. farm income by more than $4 billion.

Starling said some of the provisions in the TPP that benefited agriculture could resurface in future trade deals. The proposed deal would have reduced tariffs and promoted U.S. access to some foreign markets.

“I hope we don’t retreat from any of that and I don’t get the sense that we will, that many of the things we worked on in TPP and many of the things that we got will now hopefully become a bit of a floor as opposed to a ceiling,” he said.

Lighthizer Statement

That sentiment was echoed in written statements by U.S. Trade Representative-nominee Robert Lighthizer to the Senate Finance Committee, released March 21. Lighthizer’s statement was a response to written questions submitted by lawmakers as they considered his nomination.

Responding to a question from Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), Lighthizer said that, if confirmed as the nation’s top trade negotiator, he would consult U.S. agricultural stakeholders on new trade deals, including a NAFTA renegotiation.

“I fully appreciate the importance of exports, including exports to Canada and Mexico, to support rural income and jobs in the U.S. food and agriculture industry,” Lighthizer said in his statement. “I also fully appreciate the importance of preserving exports and expanding upon the gains from our current trade agreements.”

Lighthizer got his hearing in the Finance Committee March 14, but hasn’t yet received a confirmation vote in the full Senate.

With assistance from Cheryl Bolen

To contact the reporter on this story: Casey Wooten in Washington at cwooten@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at pHendrie@bna.com

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