Duncan: Time to move forward on trade


In 2001, I participated in Illinois Farm Bureau’s inaugural Market Study Tour to China. Our group visited a training kitchen where chefs were learning recipes featuring U.S. beef and pork products. In the kitchen’s cooler, I discovered the pork was from a facility in Waterloo, Iowa, where many of my own hogs were processed.

The fact that pigs, possibly raised on my Ogle County farm, were being used on another continent to showcase the culinary value of American meat gave me insight to the economic benefit Illinois agriculture could reap from expansion of international markets.

Today, the importance of exports remains clear, whether I am transporting my corn just down the road to a unit train for delivery to Mexico, or watching barges navigate Illinois’ inland waterways bound for port terminals for global shipping. IFB’s work to promote and advocate for trade has yielded significant returns.

Illinois is a national leader in ag exports. We rank first with $5.5 billion in soybean sales, second with $2.8 billion in corn sales and fourth with $523 million in pork sales to international countries in 2022. Altogether, Illinois ranks third nationwide for total ag exports, shipping more than $13.6 billion worth of goods abroad in 2022, according to USDA.

Biofuels bring an expanded trade opportunity as more trading partners embrace this low-carbon renewable energy source. American farmers supply 500 million bushels of corn used to produce 1.5 billion gallons of U.S. ethanol exported each year, and those volumes could increase.

Such growth is not just theoretical. These figures represent significant contributions to the Illinois farmer’s bottom line. In 2023, exports added $64 to the value of a market hog and $400 to a market beef animal, according to the U.S. Meat Export Federation. These dollars add a level of return to the livestock industry that I couldn’t have imagined when I started farming.

Despite the stability that agricultural exports bring to the U.S. economy, USDA predicts a record agricultural trade deficit of $30.5 billion for fiscal year 2024 — nearly double the $16.7 billion deficit in FY 2023.

While the United States continues to sit still, we’re losing big on trade while other countries strike new deals and expand market access for their goods. Our South American competitors are gaining market share while the benefits of international trade are being challenged here in public policy.

I attribute the erratic U.S. trade performance to a lack of understanding of trade benefits and waning political resolve among elected officials. The resulting inconsistent trade policies jeopardize past successes and hinder the development of robust agreements with other nations.

U.S. producers have been effectively shut out of economically expanding global regions by decisions like withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement and abandoning the comprehensive, multi-lateral or bilateral free trade agreements with international partners in favor of unenforceable “frameworks” and “dialogues.”

The lack of action to reauthorize the Trade Promotion Authority or the Miscellaneous Tariff Bill since they expired about three years ago has further compounded this issue. Steep tariffs and regulatory barriers restrict market access for American ag products and undermine the competitiveness of American producers.

Non-tariff barriers, such as the European Union’s environmental mandates imposed on agricultural imports, pose additional risks. These create uncertainty, drive our customers to look elsewhere and cause economic distress on the farm.

Enforcing existing agreements and ensuring countries uphold their trade commitments is crucial. Farm Bureau has consistently, through policy, called for a rules-based approach to trade, utilizing the World Trade Organization’s dispute resolution process to enforce existing agreements. This strategy minimizes the risk of retaliatory tariffs that often target American agriculture by limiting exports, driving up the cost of inputs and eroding U.S. farm profitability.

The United States should once again prioritize the negotiation of free trade agreements that open markets and aim to improve and expand market access for American farmers and businesses. Establishing new, diverse market opportunities and eliminating existing trade barriers are essential to the financial sustainability of U.S. agriculture. We need strong advocates for trade to achieve these outcomes. I am hopeful that the recently formed bipartisan Congressional Agricultural Trade Caucus will help promote trade in Congress and the White House.

We must move forward on trade. It is too vital to the economic well-being of Illinois agriculture to sit still while other countries advance.

Brian Duncan of Polo and Ogle County is the president of the Illinois Farm Bureau. This story was distributed through a cooperative project between Illinois Farm Bureau and the Illinois Press Association. For more food and farming news, visit FarmWeekNow.com.