MFU Talks Int’l Trade Impacts with Assistant Secretary Russo

MFU Talks Int’l Trade Impacts with Assistant Secretary Russo

By Rachel Prevost
MFU Member Services & Government Affairs Director

Montana Farmers Union members, farmers, and ranchers, met with Assistant Secretary of State for Global Public Affairs Bill Russo in January, relaying the impacts, priorities, and concerns that family farmers have in the foreign policy realm with Russo.
Members in attendance discussed the importance of rebuilding our trade relations following the disruptions caused by trade wars, opportunities and pathways for U.S. wheat into Canada, mandatory Country of Origin Labeling, food security and national security, immigration reform for ag labor, and concerns with foreign and corporate consolidation and ownership of our food and ag supply chain.

Secretary Russo was keenly interested in global trade relations and how family farmers are currently impacted. MFU urged that the U.S. work to rebuild trade relations with our customers, following a three-year trade war from the previous administration, that did little other than disrupt markets.

MFU Board member Erik Somerfeld explained the impact: “On the wheat end, and the barley end, we didn’t lose our share of the market because of our quality, but it caused a drastic cut in what we were getting paid because of the tariffs that were going on.”

“Anything we can do, to not make food a weapon, or the unintended victim in these trade disruptions is critically important. It’s a huge chunk of money that disappears out of the state,” Somerfeld said.

Secretary Russo asked for insight on market access that producers in the U.S. have been looking toward but have not had success. Access to Canadian markets for wheat is something the State Department should have on their radar, many of the producers in the room agreed. MFU continues to urge the administration to explore the creation of a pathway for U.S. wheat to be traded into Canada.

Many producers noted that while feed grade grain is accepted, Canada won’t recognize Montana and U.S. varieties for milling, leaving farmers in the northern tier of the U.S. at a competitive disadvantage. American wheat faces trade barriers and restrictions in the Canadian grading system, but Canadian wheat can enter the U.S. supply chain whenever it’s advantageous for them.

Following the discussion of global market access, Secretary Russo noted this concern, and said that the State Department is working on empowering the Unites States’ economic officers all around the world with the tools and knowledge they need to be better advocates for market access for U.S. industries.
Secretary Russo discussed with producers the concerns and challenges around labeling and standards in countries that don’t offer the best and try to get away with it anyways. Russo noted that in their international work they strive to raise standards.

The producers in the meeting highlighted the importance of mandatory Country of Origin Labeling (mCOOL) for beef, saying consumers should be able to make the choice of what beef they purchase, whether it’s from the U.S. or elsewhere. COOL helps producers differentiate their products.

MFU member, producer and National Farmers Organizations Vice President Bruce Shultz told the Secretary that when the U.S. had mandatory COOL, American ranchers received some of the highest prices ever for cattle, until Congress repealed mCOOL in 2015. Producers further emphasized the need for consumers to have truth in labeling.

“The USDA [inspection] label is important, but a lot of people think that means American product – but that’s not necessarily the case,” Shultz said.

The concerns over control that the large, multinational packing corporations, such as JBS, have was discussed as their monopoly control of the market also impacts food security, noted Shultz. The challenges that American producers are facing with the consolidation of the meat packing industry also creates vulnerability for food security, as exemplified during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Herd security concerns regarding disease, such as a risk of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (also known as Mad Cow disease) and Foot and Mouth disease in the U.S. from foreign imports, was discussed by producers. Shultz noted that Brazil had not complied with laws regarding the timeline reporting requirement of a recent BSE case, and he had concerns about the larger impact such failures could have on American beef and ranchers, as well as potential negative impact on consumer confidence of beef.

Montana Farmers Union also relayed their appreciation to Secretary Russo regarding the Biden Administration’s directive that all beef, pork, lamb and bison products (red meats) purchased by USDA, must be born, raised and processed in the United States. This not only gives producers more market opportunity, but ensures that most students, and all who consume this meat, including USDA AMS’s procurement for nutrition programs, will be eating a product that was born, raised, and processed in the U.S.

With the discussion of inspection and labeling top of mind, MFU member John Wicks discussed his concerns with Secretary Russo about the need to ensure accurate inspection of imports that claim to be organic. Wicks noted that to support American organic producers, they need a market that’s fair and not flooded with fraudulently organic-labeled grains, with a misleading stamp of USDA organic. Shultz added that having enough inspectors for all imports to ensure accurate truth in labeling is paramount.

Secretary Russo reiterated that a north star of the work they are doing in the international space as the State Department is the idea of raising standards. “Any country, like ours, that has immense pride in what we produce, should want to have others rise up to meet us, rather than a race to the bottom.” Russo said.

Secretary Russo also talked about the State Department’s – and broader administration’s – focus on supply chains and, more specifically, semi-conductors due to the high impact and potential damage that disruption of that supply chain can have. Producers relayed how modern equipment is dependent on these chips, but also that prices have been impacted by the lack of semi-conductors. It was clearly relayed that more semi-conductor production in the U.S. would be beneficial.

Producers in attendance also conveyed that domestic production of crop inputs, like fertilizer, would be ideal as well.

Montana Farmers Union also commended the Biden Administration’s work emphasizing buying American, and the support and work to bring back the production of chips and semiconductors in the U.S., which not only supports the American economy, good jobs, and reduces the outsourcing of critical materials, but is also important for national security. Russo noted that the supply chain around semi-conductors and chips impact all Americans, whether it’s cellphones or dishwashers, it’s an issue where people are realizing how a supply chain disruption or global conflict, has a direct impact on their lives.

Immigration reform in the vein of agricultural labor and the need for a streamlined legal pathway was also discussed in the meeting, as foreign agricultural labor and laborers who are in the U.S. through programs like H2A have become critical infrastructure in the daily operation of many family farms and ranches. MFU relayed that this is an economical issue for family farmers and ranchers, not political. For foreign agricultural labor, it’s a difficult process and expensive for family farmers, but has become an essential thread in holding many operations together, and it’s important that the State Department has this top of mind.

Montana Farmers Union is grateful to Secretary Russo for dedicating the time to learn about the issues and global policies that impact the daily lives of Montana family farmers and ranchers.

No Comments

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.