Qualified Negotiating


“It’s only when you look at ants through a magnifying glass on a sunny day that you realize how often they burst into flames,” joked the English comedian Harry Hill.

Professional protestors are trying to create their own political firestorm over President Obama’s nomination of Islam Siddiqui to become the chief agricultural negotiator in the office of the U.S. Trade Representative. What seems to upset them most is the man’s background in pest control. They act as if this was some dirty business, rather than a life-saving industry that helps crops grow and keeps food safe.

The Senate should confirm Siddiqui quickly so that he can begin the important business of boosting export opportunities for American farmers. Confirmation hearings could take place as early as next week.

I’ve known Siddiqui for many years. He goes by “Isi,” which is pronounced “Izzy.”  He really knows the business of agriculture. He’s bright, friendly, and laughs easily–traits that are useful for any diplomat, especially one who has to persuade foreign governments to open their markets to U.S. farm products.

So what’s the objection to Isi? An outspoken minority believes his connection to CropLife America, a trade association for crop-protection companies, ought to disqualify him. They seem to think that herbicides and pesticides are icky.

As it happens, there’s no such thing as spontaneous combustion, even among ants viewed through magnifying glasses on sunny days. Insects, weeds, and other pests assault farmland every day. In our efforts to feed a growing planet, they are foes who threaten to lower our yields. Farmers must fight them.

Many bugs attack crops directly, boring holes in their stalks and opening potential pathways for disease. To produce abundant and healthy food, farmers require tools to help them keep their plants safe. Isi works in collaboration with companies that provide this resource.

The New York Times editorial page, which is often sensible on trade-related issues, apparently has bought into the nonsense that Isi may not deserve his presidential appointment. “The negotiator we need is someone who can represent a broad view of American agriculture,” it sniffed on Wednesday.

That’s a bizarre criticism of Isi. A native of India, he earned a Ph.D. in plant pathology from the University of Illinois. He has extensive experience in government at the state and federal levels. He worked at the California Department of Food and Agriculture for 28 years. He also held agricultural jobs in the Clinton administration, including senior trade advisor at the Department of Agriculture. Since then, he has worked with a highly regarded think tank as well as on a federal health and science advisory board. His recent experience in private industry fills out a well-rounded resume.

How is this not “a broad view of American agriculture”? Does someone on the New York Times editorial board have a broader view?

If the Senate confirms Isi, he’ll assume an important position at a critical time. U.S. farmers depend for their livelihoods on export markets. It will be Isi’s job to make sure we keep the ones we have and that we gain access to new ones. In the current economy, these objectives are especially important for rural America.

I’ve known every top American trade negotiator for two decades or more, and I have every confidence in Isi’s ability to perform well in this job. My only concern is whether the Obama administration will let him flourish: If it was truly serious about trade negotiations, it would push for the approval of existing trade deals with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea.

Unfortunately, those goals apparently will have to wait a little bit longer. The immediate question before us concerns Isi Siddiqui’s qualifications. The Senate should do its duty and hold a hearing–and then confirm Isi as soon as possible.

Dean Kleckner, an Iowa farmer, chairs Truth About Trade & Technology. www.truthbouttrade.org Mr. Kleckner serves as a board member of the CropLife America Foundation.

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