By HENRY NGUYEN
University of Missouri
Missouri has long been known as the Gateway to the West. But these days soybean farmers know our state has gradually evolved into a gateway to the East – to be specific, the Far East.
From Audrain and Atchison to Clark and Clay, in counties across the state, soybeans play an important role in Missouri’s economy. Missouri’s soybean crop has an annual value of nearly $2 billion, and we export more than $1 billion of that each year, most to Asia.
In an ever-growing global economy, knowing soy’s place in the world market – and, thus, Missouri’s – is paramount to success for this linchpin of our agricultural offerings. In a nation that has struggled through trying economic times, a tendency toward political xenophobia often finds its way into policy, rhetoric and even regulation. That’s why it is more important than ever for Missouri to understand and embrace the fact that, among many others, China, Taiwan, Indonesia, Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam are our key trading partners.
More than one in every four rows of soybeans we grow is exported to Asia. USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said, “American agriculture is booming. Demand for products like American soybeans, wheat and tree nuts is surging across the world, with notable gains in China, Europe and Southeast Asia.”
When special-interest lobbyists in Washington decided to try to regulate imported seafood out of business with anti-trade restrictions on a fish from Vietnam, a soybean farmer from Missouri, Rep. Vicky Hartzler, recognized the impact of the nonsensical regulations and rallied a bipartisan group to get rid of it.
Hartzler saw an impending trade war with our partners over an obvious trade barrier and on March 21 introduced her own bill to shutter the contrived USDA Catfish Inspection program. If allowed, the lobbyist-created program would start its duties by halting all importation of catfish competitors from places like Vietnam for “inspection” reasons.
Attempts to block imports from Asia with fake food safety scares and big-dollar lobbying efforts hurt Missouri and, in this case, the country at large and should be stopped. Hartzler is certainly in the lead on this effort, but she’s not alone. In fact, she already has dozens of co-sponsors. Sen. John McCain heads a bipartisan effort to get rid of the program on the Senate side that features 11 co-sponsors there.
And the independent Government Accountability Office has written no fewer than four times calling the program duplicative. It’s a wasteful scenario that has seen $20 million spent in the last four years and not a single fish inspected. The government is on track to spend $165 million more on “catfish inspection” over a decade and could start a trade war in the process, all because lobbyists thought catfish farmers should spend money trying to regulate rather than innovate.
Outside the Beltway, agriculture groups such as the American Soybean Assoc. and the National Pork Producers Council oppose the USDA Catfish Inspection program, as well.
Unnecessary and contrived trade restrictions on one Asian country can spiral into a tit-for-tat that leaves honest soybean farmers holding the bag. In Missouri, Asian markets find more than just high-quality soybeans and hardworking farmers. They find a state filled with partners, not adversaries whose shortsighted regulatory antics cost U.S. sales and jobs.
Regardless of whether it’s soybeans or software, Missouri exports land on every continent on the globe and account for more than $14 billion in sales. Whether you know it or not, global trade is as Missouri as the Gateway Arch, and if we continue to fight self-defeating trade barriers, it will be here to stay.
Henry T. Nguyen is professor of plant sciences and director of the National Center for Soybean Biotechnology at the University of Missouri.