The anti-trade rhetoric in our industry has almost ceased to exist. I don’t find that surprising, as I always considered it nonsensical. However, the industry was a lot more receptive to demagogues when profitability and margins were tight.
Recent USDA data illustrates not just how important exports are to our industry, but what an important role they will play in our future. Exports have been up, with key markets like Mexico and Asia up by 10% or more. The U.S. Meat Export Federation (USMEF) estimates that beef exports were up 12% in March and 17% in value. Meanwhile, beef exports accounted for 14% of total production and 11% of muscle cuts, which were both up by about 2% compared to a year ago. Every fed animal for beef was $271.57, up nearly $50 from a year ago. To put that number into perspective, take away exports and every 550-lb. calf would be worth approximately 50¢/cwt. less than it is today!
Back in the anti-trade days, the bulk of economists, universities and cattlemen’s groups stressed that the trade numbers were being misinterpreted and misunderstood by those advocating closure of our borders to the world. Of course, the message had a populist appeal, and spawned a new cattle organization with an anti-trade, anti-free market message.
One thing you can say about cattlemen is that they aren’t fooled for long. The anti-free market, anti-capitalism, anti-big are messages with staying power, but the anti-trade message has been so thoroughly refuted at this point that it has largely been abandoned. Thankfully for the anti-trade groups, they have been able to survive by morphing into other issues.
I think mandatory country of origin labeling (MCOOL), for instance, will be one of those issues that people will look back on in 20 years and wonder how it could have consumed so much industry energy. And it will make no sense unless one understands that labeling wasn’t the issue per se; it was about industry politics and competing world views as organizations fought for survival and their membership.
I’m sure it is still possible today to find those who will argue against trade. In fact, an online poll posted on beefmagazine.com this week asked: “how important are exports to beef prices?" Of the respondents, 99% said they were “somewhat important” to “essential,” while just 1% said they were “not at all important.”
Yes, the facts have come to overwhelm the demagoguery today. And that’s usually the case with populist appeals that aren’t aimed at some inherent human weakness; eventually their message falls away, to be resurrected when a new generation and a supportive climate allow them to spring forth again.
The opinions of Troy Marshall are not necessarily those of beefmagazine.com or the Penton Farm Progress Group.
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