ORLANDO—Farmers, ranchers, and agribusiness executives undoubtedly loved President Trump’s statement on his first day in office that he wants to eliminate the Obama administration’s Climate Action Plan and the Waters of the United States rule they so bitterly opposed.
But it’s been rough since then. At winter meetings such as the ones held here this week by the American Seed Trade Association and the International Dairy Foods Association, the concern, if not outright fear, about Trump’s trade, immigration, and regulatory policies has been apparent.
Agriculture was the biggest supporter of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and has benefited mightily from the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico. When Trump announced he would actually withdraw from the TPP and renegotiate NAFTA, ag groups issued a series of tortured statements in which they stood up for the TPP principles and tried to avoid criticizing a president who won two-thirds of the vote in rural America.
But when a Trump spokesman said the president may go along with a congressional Republican proposal for a 20 percent tax on imports from Mexico, alarm bells went off. Tom Stenzel, president and CEO of the United Fresh Produce Association, whose members grow fruits and vegetables in the United States and Mexico, said, “It is very troubling for world food and agricultural markets for administration spokespersons to bandy about terms like a 20 percent tax on all imports from Mexico or other countries.” Applying the tax would amount to a “food tax” on Americans and could provoke a trade war, Stenzel added.
In an interview here, Andy LaVigne, the president and CEO of the American Seed Trade Association, said his group is concerned about the tax because U.S. companies send seeds to Mexico to be “multiplied” into volumes that are sold to U.S. farmers. And Michael Dykes, the president and CEO of the International Dairy Foods Association, pointed out that U.S. food companies have had great success in exporting to Mexico under NAFTA and fear that their products could become a target for retaliation in any conflict or renegotiation between the United States and Mexico.
On Tuesday, former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who has just become president and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council, told industry leaders that they should call their Mexican importers and reassure them that they still want to do business with them. Those calls could “overcome” Trump’s comments on Mexico, Vilsack said, without mentioning Trump’s name.
“It’s important for everyone to understand the impact that language can have on sensitive issues such as trade,” Vilsack said. He said he has urged Sonny Perdue, Trump’s nominee for Agriculture secretary, to speak up loudly for agricultural trade within the administration so it doesn’t get hurt in the attempt to help U.S. manufacturing.
Vilsack also noted that Trump’s strong antiregulatory rhetoric could interfere with implementation of the federal law on labeling genetically modified foods that the food industry and farmers worked hard to get through Congress to avoid a hodgepodge of state labeling laws.
On Trump’s executive order to cancel two regulations for every new one, Vilsack said, “Rhetoric is going to meet the reality.”
It’s doubtful that Trump or his inner circle could have imagined the negative reaction from agriculture to his executive order temporarily banning citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the United States.
“The hardship is now clear and, as a matter of fairness and in accord with the values of this nation, the decision that bans these current visa and green-card holders from returning for 90 days should be promptly reconsidered,” said Peter McPherson, the president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, whose member schools have worked hard to recruit foreign students to learn about American agriculture.
McPherson can’t be dismissed as a leftist academic, since he was administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development in the Reagan administration and Treasury deputy secretary in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations.
On top of that, Mitch Daniels, a former Republican governor of Indiana who is the president of Purdue University—the land-grant school in Vice President Mike Pence’s home state of Indiana—said, “The president’s order related to immigration is a bad idea, poorly implemented, and I hope that he will promptly revoke and rethink it. If the idea is to strengthen the protection of Americans against terrorism, there are many far better ways to achieve it.”
Around 100 of Purdue’s 40,000 students are from the countries named in this week’s executive order from the White House and hold nonimmigrant visas, and 10 faculty members are citizens of those countries, Daniels said.
Those comments will pale in comparison with the reaction that will come if Trump tries to deport farmworkers. At the IDFA meeting, the immigration session was about the aging of the farm workforce and the difficulties of replacing it with machines.
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