Trade agreements, access to foreign markets debated in U.S. Senate farm bill hearing

WASHINGTON – In its first meeting of the new congressional session, the US Senate Committee on Agriculture, Food and Forestry convened Wednesday to hear trade and horticulture titles in the upcoming farm bill.

Lawmakers prioritize enforcement of national agricultural trade agreements, expanding access to international markets and supporting underserved producers.

“The success of our agricultural economy requires continued investment in markets and opportunities for farmers,” said Senator Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat and chair of the committee. “The farm bill helps farmers put food on the table here and around the world.”

The farm bill is “omnibus, multi-year legislation that governs various agriculture and food programs,” according to the Congressional Research Service.

This legislation provides funding for federal crop insurance, SNAP benefits, international food aid, and farm resource conservation, among other programs. The bill is renewed approximately every five years, and includes mandatory spending that must be consistent with previous farm bills.

Current base spending for the 2023 farm bill is about $648 billion over the next five years.

In the last farm bill, the projected spending under the horticulture heading was about $1 billion over five years, and the projected spending under the commerce heading was about $1.375 billion over five years.

Stabenow credited programs under both headings with helping generate a record $191 billion in US agricultural exports by 2022, amid the war in Ukraine and supply chain challenges.

“These titles represent the breadth of American agriculture,” Stabenow said. “Supporting our specialty crops and organic farmers, strengthening our local food systems, building new markets overseas for all our commodities and products, and delivering critical food aid around the world.”

Mixed picture on trade

A Senate committee received a mixed update on the state of US agricultural trade from Agriculture Department officials.

Under Secretary of Trade and External Agricultural Affairs Alexis Taylor spoke of economic activity driven by record agricultural exports last year, which represented a 14% increase from the previous year. He said that 1 million jobs were supported last year by the agricultural export industry.

But despite these large numbers and record farm incomes, USDA Division of Marketing and Regulatory Programs Secretary Jenny Lester Moffitt points out 89% of American farmers supplement their income with off-farm jobs.

“Over the past few years, we’ve seen the challenges that farmers and ranchers face, especially in accessing markets to earn their fair share of the food dollar,” Moffitt said.

The under secretary added that strengthening local food systems remains an ongoing priority for the farm bill and the broader USDA.

He highlighted the work of Eastern Market in Detroit and Alabama’s farm-to-school initiative in combining state and federal funding to build local food systems.

“Utilizing resources to support better and more competitive markets for us farmers, ranchers and consumers is in the best interest of our national economy, our national food system and the environment,” Moffitt said.

Eliminate trade barriers

During the hearing, a bipartisan group of senators highlighted problems with undisputed trade barriers, including Mexico’s potential ban on genetically modified corn.

In December 2020, Mexico’s president issued a decree calling for the phasing out of GMO corn from human consumption throughout the country by 2024.

Ninety percent of US corn is grown with GMO seeds, and Mexico is the largest importer of American corn, comprising 27% of all US exports.

Republican Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst of Iowa, Roger Marshall of Kansas, John Thune of South Dakota and Deb Fischer of Nebraska voiced concern about the ban. They asked that the USDA commit to rejecting Mexico’s position, and file legal remedies through the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement.

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“Our farmers feel that this administration is putting Mexican assembly workers ahead of farmers,” Marshall said. “What are we waiting for, to trigger this mechanism? I’m tired of talking about it. We think there is time to act.”

In response, Taylor said that the USDA was “urgently negotiating” with Mexico, and that the department would insist on a “science-based right” for GMO corn exports.

Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith of Minnesota spoke about the challenge of geo-tags that put barriers on dairy exports to the European Union.

Geo-indicators on foods are names that describe the place of origin, such as Asiago or Parmesan cheese. US farmers cannot label an exported product as “Parmesan cheese”, for example, because it is not from Parma, Italy.

Taylor is committed to fighting for the rights of US dairy producers in the face of these restrictions. He said the Department is negotiating with the World Trade Organization, the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperative Forum, and the European Union to reduce the strictness for the dairy industry.

“I haven’t seen feta on the map yet,” says Taylor. “We are involved in ensuring that intellectual property rights are respected, but this generic name we use is not a barrier to our commerce.”

Diversify international markets

Several committee members noted the national security importance of developing new markets for US agricultural goods, especially given international competition and disagreements over biotechnology.

“I am concerned about this administration’s lack of attention to expanding market access for US agricultural products,” Thune said.

Taylor said the USDA believes Southeast Asia is a target sector for exports, noting that the region has the highest rate of economic growth globally. He added that Vietnam will have more than 5 million middle-class households in the next five years.

“We have an opportunity today and sooner to create consumers, lifelong consumers of American agricultural products,” Taylor said. He added that continued work on the Indo-Pacific Economic Agreement will be key to maximizing opportunities.

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Taylor also pointed to Africa as a developing market for American agricultural goods, noting that Kenya is an “interesting market,” and continued US technical support in the African Continental Free Trade Act.

Helping small farmers

Other committee members also pointed to challenges for small and underrepresented farmers to take advantage of USDA programs in the final farm bill.

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said that the USDA and lawmakers need to establish a Local Agricultural Market Program.

“I’ve heard concerns from organizations in Ohio about the application process,” Brown said. “These programs can be too difficult for under-resourced and under-served communities to access. I know we can fix it.”

The 2018 farm bill’s horticulture title creates a program, which combines and expands the existing USDA farmers market, local food marketing and value-added processing grant programs. It was allocated $50 million in annual mandatory spending in the 2018 law.

Taylor replied that in 2023, the application process will be more streamlined. He added that the USDA has worked with universities and producers to create a handbook to help communities access the resource.

Senator Michael Bennet, a Colorado Democrat, asked Moffitt about the status of the growing hemp industry, and the steps being taken to guide farmers through the process of starting operations.

“Farmers in Colorado are eager to plant and grow it,” Bennett said. “Unfortunately, burdensome testing requirements and a lack of processing facilities have stunted the potential of this versatile crop that people across the country are interested in growing.”

Moffitt responded that the USDA has taken steps to streamline and simplify the regulatory process for beginning hemp producers, and released the first National Hemp Report last week to provide market information to producers.


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