The National Association of State Departments of Agriculture has taken the unusual step of passing a resolution asking Congress not to approve the Central America Free Trade Agreement.In doing so, the organization rejected a plea by Ambassador Allen Johnson, the chief U.S. agriculture negotiator in the U.S. Trade Representative's office, to reject the resolution. A motion to do so failed by one vote.
“What so many people don't realize about CAFTA is that even though there are some small gains for farmers of particular crops, the losses we will incur by allowing certain imports could destroy other agriculture industries,” said Bob Odom, Louisiana's commissioner of agriculture and forestry.
“You have to weigh the good and the bad, and in this situation, the bad is like a truckload and the good is a bucket,” added Odom, who helped lead the fight for passage of the resolution.
Odom said the Southern Association of State Departments of Agriculture voted unanimously to oppose CAFTA. Then NASDA's Marketing and International Trade Committee approved the resolution without dissent at the organization's mid-year conference in Washington.
“This is a major demonstration of unity on the part of agriculture,” Odom said. “This front is so strong that it caught the attention of the White House, and they sent U.S. Trade Representative Allen Johnson to our meeting to attempt to railroad the resolution. But we, as ag commissioners, stuck together.”
The agreement, which is awaiting a vote in Congress, has divided farm organizations along commodity lines. The USA Rice Federation favors CAFTA because it includes market access for rough and milled rice while groups like the National Farmers Union say it would harm sugar, fruit, vegetable and ethanol producers.
The National Cotton Council has asked Congress to delay approval of CAFTA until it can be changed to include provisions that help signatory countries while denying benefits to third parties outside the agreement.
The National Association of State Departments of Agriculture came close to voting the resolution down, according to other accounts of the voting session.
After NASDA's Marketing and International Trade Committee sent the resolution to the full association, Johnson asked the group not to approve the measure, saying it would send the “wrong signal” to Congress.
Under NASDA's rules, once a committee brings a resolution to the floor, two-thirds of its members must vote to reject it. With 38 commissioners voting, only 25 voted to turn down the resolution or one less than the 26 votes needed.
A spokesman for the U.S. Trade Representative's office said Johnson believed the Marketing and International Trade Committee was not “fully informed and hadn't fully discussed” the resolution in explaining why the ambassador went to the meeting.
“Once you have an opportunity to explain what's actually in CAFTA and how it will help American farmers, we see more and more support,” said Richard Mills, a USTR spokesman.
Four more commissioners were present but chose not to vote, NASDA Executive Vice President Richard Kirchhoff noted, adding that the vote “exposed the very deep split” in the country over CAFTA.
Odom said the main problem with CAFTA is that Central American countries and the Dominican Republic will be able to flood the U.S. market with goods at cut-rate prices immediately, but American farmers won't have the same benefits in the foreign markets.
“Take a look at poultry, for example,” he said. “Under the agreement, the tariff on chicken leg quarters will be eliminated in 17 years in Costa Rica and 18 years in the other Central American countries,” Odom said. “They get instant access to the United States, and we have to wait 17 to 18 years. Our farmers will all be bankrupt and out of business by then if this agreement passes.”
Odom said CAFTA is only part of a rift that is developing between the Bush administration and farmers.
“CAFTA is just another example of this administration's lack of respect for the agriculture community,” he noted. “It is a divide and conquer tactic that is unacceptable to the agriculture community. While it could be beneficial for rice farmers, it will certainly have a detrimental impact on sugar, forestry and dairy. What's even worse is the administration's attempt to pit rice farmers against sugar farmers against foresters and so on.”
The United States and the governments of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua and the Caribbean island nation of the Dominican Republic signed the agreement last year. Congressional leaders have said they are unsure of when the agreement might come before Congress for approval.