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Vilsack, Axne, and Tai address trade concerns in stakeholder roundtable

Inside a tidied machine shed on a family farm in central Iowa, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai, and U.S. Representative Cindy Axne heard from over a dozen representatives of Iowa’s agriculture and biofuels sectors in a round table discussion Thursday morning. 

The collective message was clear: Do all you can to open up trade opportunities. 

U.S. trade with Mexico

One leading concern discussed is Mexico’s hostility toward biotechnology in corn. 

“Our freedom to operate is our freedom to innovate and that’s the strength of American agriculture,” says Bob Haus, manager of government relations at Corteva Agricscience. 

Haus called the regulatory environment in Mexico “nonfunctioning” and says 14 different Corteva seed traits have been denied approval. 

Mexico is currently a leading importer of U.S. corn, taking in nearly 17 million tons in 2021. In late 2020 Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador issued a decree to phase out genetically-modified corn for human consumption by 2024 and concern lingers that this may also apply to corn used for animal feed. 

Stakeholders at the round table urged Secretary Vilsack and Ambassador Tai to protect the Mexican market for U.S. corn. 

“We value our trade relationships with Mexico and believe that we have strong momentum to grow,” says Lance Lillibridge, a farmer from Vinton, Iowa, who participated in the round table. 

Secretary Vilsack reassured the group he has had frequent correspondence with officials in Mexico. He says the issue comes down to President López Orador’s desire to support small farmers in Mexico and champion Mexican heritage, which includes being the birthplace of white corn. 

“I pointed out to the President that he’s also deeply concerned about people in his country, particularly those who are living on fixed incomes or small incomes, and if he doesn’t see the value of our yellow corn and biotech yellow corn coming into the country to feed livestock, he’s going to have higher food prices,” Vilsack says. “That made an impression on him.” 

Vilsack says conversations are continuing around the rejected biotech traits and ensuring the market stays open to the U.S. 

Skyrocketing input costs

Another recurring theme throughout the round table was the burden of rising input costs. Lillibridge noted his input costs have gone up 325% and are becoming “unbearable.” 

Daniel Heady, national policy advisor for Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, says there isn’t a day that goes by where he doesn’t hear about input costs like fertilizer. The U.S. currently has tariffs on phosphate fertilizers from Morocco and Russia.  

“We’re all for building American and having local, domestic production of ag inputs, but it takes awhile to do that and a lot of money,” he says. “Until we can get to that point, we really need to allow for the free movement of ag products throughout the world.”

Secretary Vilsack teased upcoming announcements of support from USDA of domestic fertilizer production to help ease the pain farmers are feeling. He also underscored the administration’s efforts to raise farmer income by growing trade opportunities. 

Ambassador Tai says she recognizes the “short-term stresses” farmers are under but emphasizes the transition the Biden Administration is attempting to make for the nation’s long-term good.

“When we are building toward a more resilient economy, a global economy, there is a transition that we need to go through,” she says. “We can’t just flip a switch and change the course of 20, 30, 40 years of trade policy.”

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