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What free trade really looks like
It is easy to talk about solving the hunger problem with a full stomach, and it is easy to talk about foreign trade from the comfort of home. For the past week, I have seen trade up close and personal as I traveled with 35 Indiana farmers, agri-business people, and state officials. We have been on a brutally hectic schedule to Guatemala, Costa Rica and Panama.

We met with presidents and ministers, farmers and businessmen, and average people. We came away with some promising business leads, some political accomplishments, and a better understanding of what it is going to take to participate in the global market. I came away with a new perspective on agricultural trade and have a few suggestions on how we can improve the world agricultural trading system.

The first is that the folks who write trade policy, trade regulations and trade legislation should spend more time actually trading. I think that trade ambassadors should be required to spend six months as banana brokers in Costa Rica. All WTO negotiators should have to spend time actually trying to get something imported into another country. This kind of experience would give these big shots an idea of just what kind of impact their trade regulations have. It would also give hem a new vocabulary.

I think every member of Congress who voted against CAFTA and every member of every farm group that opposed CAFTA should have to spend a week in Guatemala. And I don’t mean at the Intercontinental Hotel, but in the highlands talking with farmers whose lives are being changed for the better because of the benefits of free trade. They would meet the small farmers who, instead of being hurt by free trade, are being helped by free trade.

These formerly subsistence producers have stopped planting corn and started growing specialty crops they can now export to the U.S. through their own farmer-owned cooperative.

Trade deals are always painted as helping the rich get richer and making the poor, poorer. This week I saw that is not the case. Producers large and small can benefit from more open trade.

I would like to see college students who major in political science to be required to take higher-level science courses. Many of these kids end up as lawyers or bureaucrats who know politics and think it is a science. As a result, we get leaders who want to use politics to regulate food safety rather than using sound science. Not until we can get all nations to start using science, along with some common sense, will we really develop a true open market.

This week I have seen first hand just how great free trade can be. I have seen two farmers, one from Indiana and one from Central America, sit down with a legal pad and do a deal that made them both money.

I have seen how trade brings jobs and opportunity to the poorest of the poor and how economic growth can bring democracy to a nation torn by 30 years of civil war.

I have also seen how easy it is for political dunces and economic neophytes to screw things up for everyone.

Next time someone starts telling you about how bad trade is and how bad free trade agreements are, do me a favor and send them on a trade mission. Maybe they will learn something.

Published in the January 18, 2006 issue of Farm World.