By Mark Tarallo
SALT LAKE CITY (B)--The National Farmers Union voted Feb. 28 to oppose granting China permanent normal trade relations status unless several stringent conditions are met.
The vote came only a few hours after Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman, in a speech delivered to the group's convention here, touted how granting the trade status would boost U.S. farm exports to China.
The vote came during a policy recommendations session among the NFU's delegates at the group's recent annual convention. The close 64 to 62 vote is indicative of how contentious the issue has been throughout the meeting.
While the NFU, with a smaller and more populist membership than the American Farm Bureau Federation, does not always represent the majority political view of U.S. agriculture producers, the decision is still troubling for the Clinton Administration, which is seeking a congressional vote on China trade later this year.
The permanent trade status would guarantee Chinese goods the same low-tariff access to U.S. markets as products from nearly every other nation. At present, Congress can vote to override a presidential decision on this trade benefit to China annually.
For its part, China has agreed to significant market access concessions, especially in the agriculture sector, if it is awarded permanent trade benefits.
Glickman, in his address earlier in the day, cast the issue
as one that would be key to the future of U.S. farm exports.
He argued that the trade status would help rectify the current "terrible" balance of trade between the U.S. and China. China now sells about $70 billion worth of goods to the U.S. annually, with U.S. exports to China at only about $14 billion.
Glickman argued that withholding the trade measure is an act of "isolationism" that would give the farm trade competitors of the U.S. an advantage in importing to the Chinese market.
"If we are not in the game..Europe, Canada, Argentina and Australia will eat our lunch," Glickman said. "Is that good for America's farmers? I don't think so."
Some NFU delegates echoed Glickman's views when the group debated the issue during its policy session. Several delegates from North Dakota and Washington, wheat and barley producing states that want to export to China, spoke in favor of the permanent trade status.
But delegates from a diverse collection of other states, including Minnesota, Nebraska and Michigan, spoke out strongly against it.
These delegates voiced two main arguments. One was that recent international trade agreements have hurt U.S. farm exporters, and so the annual review process that Congress now uses on China's trade status is one of the only forms of leverage the U.S. has when it comes to trade.
"Why in the world would we be stupid enough to give up the one single advantage we have?" Nebraska delegate John Hanson said.
In addition, some delegates argued that U.S. farmers should stand in solidarity with U.S. labor, which is leading the fight against China trade legislation.
"We stand with labor and labor stands with us, and labor has a whole lot to lose by this," Minnesota delegate Pete Takash said.
This small-scale labor-farmer coalition comes at a time when Clinton Administration officials have urged U.S. farm groups to take a leading role in the China trade legislation.
The language that the delegates adopted states that the NFU opposes permanent normal trade relations unless China:
--Enforces two pending UN agreements on human rights;
--Develops a history of complying with trade agreements, and
--Enacts rules that foster free trade.
However, given the very broad and somewhat vague nature of the conditions, it seems doubtful that China would be able to satisfy them anytime soon.