Farm Bill matters to Maryland

Securing access to foreign markets is critical to Free State's $316 million agricultural export industry

June 06, 2013|By Jerry Hingle

The Farm Bill currently making its way through Congress is important to everyone who lives and works in Maryland because it provides critical support to one of the pillars of the state's economy: international trade.

The bill, strongly debated in Congress since it was introduced in May 2012 following the expiration of the 2008 U.S. Farm Bill, helps keep the doors open to exports of America's food and agriculture. The debate over this nearly $1 trillion bill is a perfect example of gridlock in Congress: Because it requires balance among so many divisive priorities, including public support of our nation's farmers and ranchers, conservationism, social welfare and the budget deficit, it is a microcosm of our federal budgeting process and requires Congress to approach the situation with a willingness to compromise. With food and agriculture exports from Maryland reaching $316 million last year, Maryland has a vested interest in the outcome of that compromise.

Many countries are itching for a reason to shut out American imports by technical or regulatory fiat, and our competitors are outspending us to win foreign consumers from us. Publicly funded efforts to help market and gain regulatory approval of food and agriculture in foreign markets are permitted under World Trade Organization (WTO) rules, with no limit on public or producer funding. As such, the number of countries investing heavily in this is growing.

In the U.S., for example, the Market Access Program (MAP) and the Foreign Market Development (FMD) programs, which are provided by the Farm Bill, have proved highly successful. Since MAP's creation in 1985, U.S. agriculture exports have increased by nearly 500 percent, and today about 1 million American jobs depend on these exports. Thousands of small- to medium-sized businesses throughout the country are exporting, thanks in part to MAP and FMD. These are cost-sharing programs in which participants are required to contribute as much as a 100 percent match of their own resources to be eligible and are excellent examples of effective public-private partnerships that deliver and should be funded through the Farm Bill.

However, without continued funding for "boots on the ground" to keep the regulatory doors open and vie for consumer demand, we will quickly lose export markets to competitors such as Europe, Brazil and Australia. Considering that one of every three acres planted in the United States is destined for foreign markets, being cut off from these markets would be disastrous not only to the U.S. economy but also to the billions of people around the world who rely on the United States for nutrition.

America's agricultural sector has been a bright spot in the U.S. economy, with exports rising more than 50 percent in the past five years. It is one of the few sectors of our economy that enjoys a strong trade surplus. We exported a record $141 billion last year, and global demand will continue to rise sharply, particularly among growing middle classes that recognize our products for their quality and safety. Many of the products seen on local grocery store shelves can also be found on grocery shelves in places like Hanoi, Hannover, Dubai and Dublin.

Maryland is a large part of that export success with high-value food and agriculture exports currently at $127 million, an increase of 8 percent from the previous period, and intermediate exports such as soybean oil having doubled since 2007. Exporting can continue to put Marylanders to work with high-paying jobs that, unlike the goods they will handle, cannot be exported to other countries. These jobs extend beyond the farmlands, fisheries and ports to local banks, law firms and transport businesses.

Because of a rising world population and an increasing ability to afford higher quality foods, global food and agriculture demand is expected to double by the year 2050. Maryland is uniquely suited to continue taking advantage of this trend. So whether you call it a moral responsibility, a business opportunity or the fuel that feeds a critical component of the local economy, passing a Farm Bill matters.

Jerry Hingle, as executive director and CEO of the Southern United States Trade Association, directs SUSTA's promotional campaign aimed at growing and enhancing U.S. food and agricultural exports around the world. His email is jerry@susta.org.

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