Citizen Diplomacy: Agriculture Brings People Together


American farmers need China.

We need access to Chinese markets so we can sell our crops to Chinese customers–something we’re now doing at record levels, in fact.

And here’s the really good news: China needs us too.

While politicians in Washington and on the campaign trail have made a sport of bashing Beijing, citizen diplomacy here in the heartland shows us that China is best understood not as a geopolitical rival but as an economic partner.

Our relations should grow warmer, not colder–and last week they took a step in the right direction.

Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping–slated to become his country’s next President–toured the United States, with stops in Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles.

In between these coastal visits, he spent a couple of days in Iowa, attending a dinner in his honor at the state capitol in Des Moines. We ate a traditional Iowa meal, including sweet-corn cheesecake for dessert, and sipped green tea instead of coffee.

The next day, Vice President Xi visited the farm of Rick and Martha Kimberley, not far from Des Moines, near the small town of Maxwell, Iowa. “I hope that everything you plant this spring will have a good outcome at harvest,” he said.

As it happens, China has a stake in the Kimberley’s harvest. Last year, it bought $20 billion in agricultural products from the United States, half of it in soybeans and much of the rest in corn and pork. China buys more American soybean exports than any other country–about 60 percent of what we shipped abroad last year.

Much is made of the U.S. trade deficit with China. In agriculture, however, we enjoy a trade surplus.

This success translates directly into jobs. The Department of Agriculture estimates that farm exports to China support 160,000 workers in the United States.

Our two countries certainly have differences. We battle over how China values its currency. We don’t always see eye to eye on national security. China must improve its human-rights record and begin to observe intellectual-property rights.

Many politicians prefer to view China as a threat. In his recent State of the Union address, President Obama grumbled about “unfair trading practices.” In a Wall Street Journal op-ed last week, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney issued his own complaint: “A trade war with China is the last thing that I want, but I cannot tolerate our current trade surrender.” And on February 20, in a Detroit News op-ed, Republican candidate Rick Santorum criticized China’s trade policies, suggesting that he would eliminate taxes on manufacturing activity for ‘homegrown’ industries.

Perhaps they should pay closer attention to what just happened in Iowa. Xi put the state on his itinerary partly because he hoped to show how much he values U.S. agriculture. He also wanted to take a trip down memory lane. In 1985, when he was a minor government official, he stayed for two nights on a farm in Muscatine, Iowa, by the border with Illinois.

Economic interdependence, combined with Xi’s evident fondness for Iowa, bodes well for future relations between the United States and China.

They’ll keep buying and we’ll keep selling, in a mutually beneficial relationship.

If the voices of China’s critics grow too loud, however, we risk everything. Threatening crackdowns on “unfair trading practices”, eliminating taxes to protect “homegrown industries” and speaking openly of “a trade war” could hurt American business – including farmers.

Last year, China imported 1.75 million tons of corn, and 96 percent of it came from the United States. Some experts think China will import as many as 9 million tons of corn annually in the near future–an astounding opportunity for American farmers.

Yet there’s no guarantee that we’ll enjoy as much of it as we should. On the day that Xi was in Iowa, a Chinese delegation in Buenos Aires signed an agreement that will provide Argentine corn farmers with the kind of access to Chinese markets that Americans now have.

Clearly, if we say that we don’t want China’s business, China will find a country that does.

All around the globe, agriculture brings people together–and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t also help unite the world’s most prosperous nation with the world’s most populous nation.

Mary Boote serves as Executive Director for Truth About Trade & Technology


Mary Boote

Mary Boote

Mary Boote serves as Chief Executive Officer of the Global Farmer Network. Raised on a Northwest Iowa dairy, pork, corn, and soybean family farm, she had the privilege of serving as agriculture adviser to Iowa Governor Terry E. Branstad from 1997-1999.

Through the Global Farmer Network, Mary works with farmers around the world to develop and deliver communication platforms that engage the farmers' perspective and voice as an integral part of the dialogue regarding the global agri-food system. The mission: To amplify the farmers' voice in promoting trade, technology, sustainable farming, economic growth, and food security.

Named as one of the Worldview 100: Global Industry's top 100 Visionaries and Leaders in Biotechnology by Scientific American Worldview in 2015, Mary has had the opportunity to travel internationally, serving on agriculture leadership missions that focused on issues as varied as instruction on strategic planning and personal representation for privatized agriculturalists in newly independent countries to learning more about smallholder maize projects to observing the trade negotiation process at the World Trade Organization.

Mary attended Northwestern College, Orange City, Iowa and was privileged to participate in the 2009 Harvard AgriBusiness Seminar.

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