Trade, climate change highlighted in State of Union

Ag industry finds areas of common ground from President's sixth annual address to Congress.

President Barack Obama made his sixth State of the Union address before Congress and a nationalized televised audience Tuesday night. For agriculture, the main themes of importance included his request for Trade Promotion Authority, ending the Cuba embargo, tax reform and climate change.

The President vowed to revisit the tax code, making it more fair for all and easier to understand. However, Republicans and Democrats remain at odds on how to fix the tax code.

Ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee Ron Wyden (D., Ore.) who will be instrumental in helping strike a bipartisan accord on tax reform, said the president’s proposals “should be seen as a good and serious starting points” and his hope was they can be a “catalyst for bipartisan, common-sense discussion” in solving the country’s challenging problems.

On the trade front, Obama made the case that if the United States wants to protect American workers with strong trade deals, Congress needs to grant the president trade promotion authority. He cited that China wants to write the rules for the world’s fastest-growing region and this would put U.S. workers and businesses at a disadvantage. “We should write those rules. We should level the playing field,” he said.

Obama said 95% of the world’s customers live outside our borders. “We can’t close ourselves off from those opportunities,” he adding, noting he knows past trade deals haven’t always lived up to the hype.

A statement from American Farm Bureau Federation president Bob Stallman said they were encouraged by the president’s strong support for TPA, which would give Congress the ability to “vote yes or no on foreign-trade treaties without deal-killing amendments.”

Wade Cowan, American Soybean Assn. president, added that Trade Promotion Authority is “long overdue” and said it’s “critically important that Congress pass and the President sign a completed TPA package that will lay the groundwork for robust and comprehensive trade agreements.”

Ahead of the speech however, Democrats led by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D., Ct.) and the National Farmers Union called TPA a “mistake” and past trade accord history shows that the U.S. continues to lose jobs, has not decreased its trade surplus, and labor standards are unable to be upheld.

Obama shared that more than half of manufacturing executives have said they’re actively looking to bring jobs back from China. In the Republican response from newly elected Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst, she too cited tearing down trade barriers in places like Europe and the Pacific can help the U.S. sell more of what is made and grown in America so that manufacturing, wages and jobs can be boosted domestically.

DeLauro, who is a staunch advocate for stricter food safety standards, criticized that new trade deals would allow unregulated food products into the U.S. including seafood from Malaysia and Vietnam which has made headlines recently.

Also on the trade front, Obama touted the administration’s recent policy adjustments on Cuba. The Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced that the interpretation of "cash in advance" would revert to the pre-2005 definition, meaning "cash before transfer of title or control."  Another new and positive regulatory change will allow U.S. financial institutions to open accounts at Cuban banks to facilitate transactions.

Obama called on Congress to begin the work of ending the embargo. The week prior, House Democrats led by Rep. Collin Peterson (D., Minn.) introduced a bill that would do exactly that.

Cowan also shared that trade can’t be improved without modern ports and the president’s highlighting of infrastructure needs was appreciated. “We depend on ports in nearly every coastal region of the United States to carry our soybeans abroad, and we must continually invest in this supply chain to stay ahead of our foreign competitors."

Climate change

Obama also again mentioned climate change in his address, a common theme over his tenure.

He shared that 2014 was the planet’s warmest year on record.  He added if the U.S. doesn’t act “forcefully” that the continuation will occur of “rising oceans, longer, hotter heat waves, dangerous droughts and floods and massive disruptions that can trigger greater migration and conflict and hunger around the globe.”

Obama boasted over the past six years his administration has done “more than ever to combat climate change” and added that’s why more public lands and waters have been set aside under his administration than any other in history.

“Clearly, climate change is happening right before our very eyes, increasing the occurrence and severity of volatile weather events, requiring better risk management tools for farmers today and legislative action by the federal government to address this issue,” said NFU president Roger Johnson. “Farmers are in a position to help mitigate many aspects of climate change.”

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, approximately 6% of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions originating in the United States come from agricultural activities, although carbon sequestration by forests and agricultural lands offsets approximately 12% of annual GHG emissions with the capacity to offset 20% of GHG emissions from all sectors of the economy. 

“Family farmers are ready to do our part to address climate change,” he said.

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