Editor's note: The following commentary was writen by Josh Rolph, the Director of International Trade, Farm Policy, Taxation and Plant Health for the California Farm Bureau Federation (CAFBF) and published on AgAlert, a weekly newspaper for California agriculture by the CAFBF.
I’ve heard it said many times the last few years that agriculture has been the bright spot in California’s lagging economy. All data suggest that fair and open trade with foreign markets plays a significant role. In fact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture just announced—in its words—"an astonishing trend" for U.S. farm exports, which are on track to grow to $145 billion in 2013, up from $96 billion in 2009, or more than 50 percent in a relatively short period of time. California agriculture represents an equally impressive 13 percent of that total. While there are many factors that contribute to this surge in foreign trade, the move toward free-trade agreements is one that cannot be overlooked.
The last two decades of FTAs have been turbulent ones. Per the rules, a negotiated free-trade agreement must pass both chambers of Congress and receive the approval of the president before ratification, a high hurdle to meet within the highly partisan environment in Washington. Even with a Republican-controlled federal government in the early 2000s, trade votes such as the Central American Free Trade Agreement passed Congress with only razor-thin majorities.
For the strongest proponents of free, fair and open trade, the lowest point began in 2008, when a broad protectionist sentiment swept across America almost in tandem with the sinking economy. At that time, three bilateral FTAs negotiated by the Bush administration seemed to be indefinitely tabled by a new Democratic majority in Congress. Meanwhile, presidential candidate Barack Obama’s campaign pledged to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement. All things considered, it would have been easy to believe that the two-decade trend toward free-trade agreements had drawn to an end.
Things began to change shortly after President Obama took office. He almost immediately backed away from the tough NAFTA talk, and in his 2010 State of the Union speech he announced the National Export Initiative, an effort to double exports in five years as a way of providing a boost to the ailing economy. By June, the administration began the first round of negotiations as part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an FTA covering nine nations that will likely expand in the near term.