August 7, 2017; NPR, “The Salt”
One of the many sectors facing turmoil and uncertainty under the Trump administration includes the people who feed your community—farmers. While the significant subsidies that Big Agriculture receives are roundly and rightly criticized, some farmers also say that they’ve received a raw deal since NAFTA was enacted in 1994, and the future of the country’s economy is now up for grabs.
Negotiations on the North American Free Trade Agreement open next week in Washington, and in an increasingly interconnected world, the issues at stake are numerous and reflective of today’s wider political landscape, as NPR aptly summarized in an article that’s part of the Food & Environment Reporting Network:
From tomato growers in Florida to cattle ranchers in Montana, some farmers bruised by NAFTA think it has favored agribusiness over small-scale farms, lowered environmental standards and made it harder to compete against cheaper imports. Now that the White House is scheduled to revise the treaty in talks slated to start on August 16th, the question for many of these disgruntled farmers is whether President Trump will remember them at the negotiating table…
Free-trade proponents argue there are always winners and losers in globalization, but overall, gains outweigh losses. Farmers may see more competition, but consumers get lower food prices. That “everyone’s better off” argument, though, rang hollow among Rust Belt workers left behind in globalization—and in rural areas, even as farm exports took off. Their discontent—fed by Donald Trump’s promises to rip up NAFTA, calling it the “worst trade deal maybe ever signed anywhere”—helped land him in the White House.
But what do the numbers show? NPR explains:
Sign up for our free newsletters
Subscribe to NPQ's newsletters to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.
Whether or not it was the primary culprit, NAFTA certainly hasn’t altered the steady rise in farm concentration. Trade expanded the total size of the pie, as the Farm Bureau points out: U.S. agricultural exports to Mexico and Canada jumped from $8.9 billion in 1993 to over $38 billion today. Yet, critics point out, the largest farms control most of the slices, with 20 percent of farms operating 70 percent of U.S. farmland. Between 2013 and 2016, 42,000 farms ceased operations, according to USDA data.
One of the arguments for globalization is that a rising tide lifts all boats and that economic empowerment can alleviate poverty. How have America’s trading partners fared? NPR points out that Mexico’s poverty rate was still 53 percent as of 2014 and millions of Mexican farmers have lost their land. Ironically, Mexico also relies mainly on American corn to feed its citizens.
Nearly half of Mexico’s food is imported from abroad, much of it from the United States. That includes corn, which is both a staple food and a religious symbol for the indigenous population—yet today, most of Mexico’s corn comes from the U.S. Midwest. In 2016 alone, the U.S. shipped $2.6 billion worth of the stuff to its southern neighbor—its largest export market—mostly for livestock feed.
Like many of us currently at the whim of Trump’s cabinet, farmers are asking for a place at the negotiating table. But, it seems unlikely Trump can keep all of his lofty campaign promises to everyone. Last month, U.S. farmers were reeling when the White House proposed cutting $38 billion in subsidies to farmers, including $28 billion in crop insurance. Thus, farmers are turning to Congress with their appeals, according to CNBC:
To be sure, the White House budget is generally considered a wish list. The farmers are hoping relief will come when Congress writes its own version of the budget. In addition, lawmakers must renegotiate the 2014 Farm Bill, which is set to expire in September 2018. That bill was particularly bruising to farmers, slicing $23 billion from the Department of Agriculture over 10 years. The Farm Bureau called Trump’s proposed cuts a magnitude higher.
In the meantime, agriculture, argued the New York Times, is just another sector left in the lurch by President Trump’s stalled trade agenda. “After beginning his presidency with a bang by withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership pact in January, Mr. Trump has accomplished little else of significance when it comes to reorienting deals with other countries,” reporter Alan Rappeport wrote. “Instead, his administration has been struggling to work through the complicated rules that dictate international commerce…All the while, they are learning that bold campaign promises are hard to keep when many voices advocate different plans.”—Anna Berry