The increasing and ever-evolving role of trade in American agriculture

By Kelly Sheridan, ASU Sustainable Food Systems graduate student

During our immersive week in Washington, D.C., my graduate school cohort had the privilege to meet with Alexis Taylor, USDA Under Secretary for Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs (TFAA), and her chief of staff, Jamal Habibi. Under Secretary Taylor is only the second official to hold this position.  No stranger to USDA, Under Secretary Taylor served at the department from 2013 – 2017 in a variety of different roles, with the last being delegated the duties of the Under Secretary for the then Farm and Foreign Agriculture Services mission area. Taylor then went on to become the Director of Agriculture for the State of Oregon until 2022.

Working in a newer mission area for USDA, Under Secretary Taylor has laid out the following priorities to rebuild the case for trade and to further develop market diversification for US farmers and ranchers.  One of the many ramifications of Covid-19, and a trend that often takes place when a country or a region faces crisis, is a rise in protectionist policies that create a challenge for trading relationships. In order to re-establish those relationships, Under Secretary Taylor is setting out to complete multiple trade missions to promote U.S. agriculture and increase export market opportunities. The trade missions will also focus on understanding the current barriers to access those markets and how to address those barriers, while also showcasing U.S. agriculture as a supplier of choice. It has become increasingly important that we are not overly reliant on any one given market for our exports. The ability to diversify provides our farmers and ranchers stability and assurance that their products will have markets to be sold in times of volatility and uncertainty.

A key component in the strength of TFAA and its ability to effect agricultural trade is the FAS staff and offices.  FAS has offices in over 95 countries that are connected to nearly 180 countries in total. This network of staff is responsible for navigating any trade policy issues that arise. They are instrumental in dealing with port shipment issues and ensure that products that are stuck, whether it be due to a certificate or registration complication, are released for U.S. exporters. In addition to USAID, USDA FAS also plays an important role in providing key food security and technical assistance programs in various countries.

With the increasing focus on climate change and sustainability and its impact globally, trade will play an important role in how we provide solutions. In the context of agriculture, the definition of sustainable agriculture and farming practices tends to depend on your beliefs and where you live. With differing opinions on sustainable agriculture, this can also lead to potential non-tariff trade barriers being established.  During our meeting, it was asked of Under Secretary Taylor if the topic of sustainability is a part of trade discussions and if the administrations increased focus and funding towards climate smart agriculture would help promote U.S. agriculture. Taylor remarked that climate was previously discussed on the margins and now climate resiliency is a major part of trade discussions. She continued to discuss how a cornerstone of U.S. agricultural production is our sustainable productivity growth and our ability to produce the volume of food needed to feed our populations with limited resources available. Taylor described how the U.S is distinct in that our sustainability or climate smart efforts are voluntary measures versus being regulatory enforced measures. According to the Under Secretary, by increasing and adjusting incentives to promote climate smart practices, the USDA hopes to see an increase in practice and technology adoption among U.S. farmers and ranchers in the coming years.

In 2022, a record As Under Secretary Taylor sets out to continue to rebuild the case for trade and diversify the markets available to U.S. farmers, despite current headwinds, we look forward to U.S. agriculture continuing to break records while feeding a growing global population.

TFAA Background: To underscore the growing importance of trade and the role it plays in American agriculture; the 2014 Farm Bill mandated the creation of a new Under Secretary at United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) for Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs (TFAA).  In 2017, this role was officially established and announced along with a reorganization of USDA agencies, including Foreign Agricultural Services (FAS) and the U.S. Codex Office, under this new mission area. TFAA is the lead on USDA’s trade policy and ensures that the department is speaking with a unified voice on international agriculture issues both domestically and abroad. To learn more about TFAA and their agencies, visit their website here.

This blog is part of a series from the May 2023 Washington D.C. Immersive component of the Swette Center graduate programs. Students met with federal food and agriculture focused officials at USDA, the White House, and Congress alongside many other important influencers of policy in industry and non-profits.