NCBA Editorial: "Time to Play Straight Up"
DENVER - I recently returned from the Five Nations Beef Conference – a biennial meeting of cattle industry leaders from the United States, Canada, Mexico, and this year’s host countries – Australia and New Zealand. It was an unforgettable and eye-opening experience.
It’s no secret that we compete vigorously with these countries for global market share. Australia, in particular, benefited from the closing of many borders to U.S. beef after the 2003 BSE case. A large share of Canada’s exports come into the United States, but they compete with us in other markets – especially in Asia. Mexico presents formidable competition in some markets, though right now it is far and away the top importer of U.S. beef.
Even fierce competitors have issues on which they can work together, and that is the primary purpose of the Five Nations meeting. It’s an opportunity to focus on issues and challenges that we have in common – such as overcoming trade barriers, establishing science-based trade standards, and building global demand for beef. We also discussed the need to develop clear standards for traceability, so that any country’s claim of an effective and comprehensive animal ID system can be evaluated and verified.
I’m ready and willing to slug it out with any of these countries in the global marketplace, because I firmly believe America produces the safest, best-tasting, and most appealing beef in the world. But we must recognize that our competition for global consumers is by no means limited to other nations’ beef. We face enormous challenges from pork and poultry, as well as other proteins. So goals such as growing global beef demand and improving access to international markets are in the best interests of all beef-producing nations, and worthy causes that we can all rally around.
I also believe there is much we can learn from these countries with regard to international trade. You’ve heard me say many times that exports are critical to the profitability of U.S. cattlemen. Critical, yes - but not the main thrust of our existence. Our domestic market is still our top concern, and it always will be. But do we depend on our domestic consumers too much? Can we really grow the domestic market enough to ensure that our sons and daughters will have the opportunity to raise cattle? If we absolutely have to double or triple our beef exports in order for our industry to grow and thrive, can we do it?
Australia exports 70 percent of the beef it produces. For Canada, the figure is typically 50 to 60 percent. For them, exports are not just a bonus or a boost to their bottom line. Exports are their life blood, and they know it. It is widely known by now that Australia recently raised its beef checkoff to $5 per head (or about $3.75 in U.S. dollars). Canada has also stepped up its investment in international marketing. I am of the opinion that the United States must adopt a similarly aggressive mindset.
An increase in our own beef checkoff could help bolster our presence in international markets. But aggressive global marketing is not necessarily about money. Even with our existing financial resources, there is much more that we need to do to better position U.S. beef with international consumers.
First and foremost, we must uniformly demand that our trading partners get serious about complying with international safety standards, and stop using BSE as an artificial trade barrier. We simply cannot tolerate these delay tactics, so we must keep the pressure on countries that continue to play these games. It’s time to convince South Korea that if it really wants a comprehensive free trade agreement with the United States, it must stop inventing unreasonable import restrictions that essentially keep its border closed to U.S. beef. It’s also time to reaffirm our stance with Russia that says: no beef imports, no WTO entry - period.
While the Five Nations meeting had a positive tone for the most part, we did go nose-to-nose with the Australian government about its policy of blocking all U.S. beef imports. While this is supposedly due to BSE, it’s really just an unjustified trade barrier that even Australia’s own cattlemen’s association doesn’t defend. If Australia wants to be a major player in the world beef market, it needs to stop trying to have it both ways on market access. Surely a nation that exports 70 percent of the beef it produces should understand our own desire for fair trade based on legitimate scientific standards. Australia needs to help set an example for free, fair and reliable trade, instead of clinging to its extremely unfair and hypocritical trade policies.
So while I return from this conference very energized and upbeat about America’s position in the global beef market, I also know that our position can be vulnerable. We can’t take for granted our role as a global beef industry leader, and we can’t back down in situations where we are being treated unfairly. Sadly, the fact that our cattlemen produce the safest and best beef in the world may not be enough, without significant leveling of the international playing field.
To use a golf analogy, U.S. cattlemen must finally say to the rest of the world, “We’ve given you too many strokes for too long. It’s time to play straight up.”
Mike John is a cattleman from Huntsville, Missouri, and president of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.