DES MOINES — As the United States prepares to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said his priority is “do no harm.”
“Overall, agriculture has done very well under NAFTA and we hope to continue that,” Perdue told reporters Saturday at the 2017 Iowa Ag Summit. “ … So, do no harm, but then let’s figure out how we can enhance” the agreement.
Federal officials are expected to hold the first round of renegotiations between Aug. 16-20.
Perdue is on a five-state tour to discuss the 2018 Farm Bill, which governs a number of agricultural and food support programs including crop insurance and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
“The Farm Bill is the pre-eminent piece of legislation for rural America. … I know of no other piece of legislation that impacts such a large area of our country,” U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said at the summit.
Agribusinessman and prominent Iowa Republican Bruce Rastetter hosted the Ag Summit, which brought together farmers, state officials and industry representatives. Rastetter is also a former Iowa Board of Regents president.
This year’s summit came amid proposed changes to the Renewable Fuel Standard, statewide debates on water quality, an expected decline in farm income and arguments the United States needs to reduce its trade deficit with China.
“We want to do everything we can to ensure that Iowa continues to be positioned to succeed globally as we not only maintain our existing market and footprint, but we have the opportunity to explore new ones,” Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds said.
U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, argued the nation needs to negotiate new trade deals with countries in Asia, especially since President Donald Trump pulled the country out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
“If we don’t pursue these trade agreements, I guarantee you that China will,” Ernst said.
Here’s what else was discussed Saturday:
Grassley said he is hopeful Congress can pass a Farm Bill by Christmas. No new funding will be included, though, meaning existing and proposed programs will have to fight over the same money.
Gary Wertish, president of the Minnesota Farmers Union, said the Farm Bill represents only about 2 percent of the federal budget.
“You can’t balance the budget on the backs of farmers. ... Even if we take a cut, it’s not going to make a bit of difference in the federal budget,” he said.
Wendy Wintersteen, endowed dean of Iowa State University’s College of Agriculture & Life Sciences, said Congress should invest more in agricultural research. More research dollars, she said, can help the United States prepare for disease outbreaks or other disasters.
“With inadequate investment, we’re never prepared for the next crisis that’s occurring in the food systems, and you literally can’t predict it,” she said.
Vermeer Executive Vice President Mark Core said other countries are investing heavily in infrastructure to help agriculture, while the United States does not appear to be doing the same.
“We talk about roadways and waterways and those kinds of things, but it’s also water infrastructure, it’s broadband infrastructure. There’s a lot of other elements for us to be competitive as a global player and to keep agriculture in the top where we need to be, and it’s in that whole infrastructure discussion that I assume after Obamacare we’ll talk about,” Core said, adding that he can’t access internet service fast enough even to stream Netflix despite living 35 miles south of Des Moines.
Perdue said, when it’s released, Trump’s proposed infrastructure bill will include funding for increased rural broadband service.
“When you see his infrastructure bill coming out here very soon, you’ll see a real emphasis on rural prosperity, rural infrastructure,” Perdue said.
What others said
While panelists spoke inside the Iowa Events Center, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement members protested outside.
“Rastetter’s Corporate Ag Summit is about fattening the pockets of Big Ag tycoons and championing a race to the bottom in environmental degradation,” CCI Board President Cherie Mortice said in a statement.
Responding Saturday, Rastetter said the Ag Summit is not “a Republican event, it’s not a big corporate business event.”
The Democratic National Committee also jumped in, arguing Trump’s proposed budget cuts would hurt programs that have benefited rural Iowans, including crop insurance.
“As Congress is preparing to craft the 2018 Farm Bill, Republicans must work across the aisle to put forward a balanced, bipartisan bill that strengthens programs for farm families, invests in conservation and energy, and creates jobs by growing the economic base of Iowa’s rural communities,” DNC Midwest Press Secretary Mandy McClure said in a statement.