U.S. hog industry caught in trade troubles

The National Pork Producers Association’s trade expert tries to stay hopeful as Mexico, China retaliate with pork tariffs

DES MOINES, Iowa — It must be a bewildering time to be Nick Giordano, the National Pork Producers Association’s international trade expert.

“We’re really hopeful we can get out of reverse and moving forward,” Giordano said in an interview at the World Pork Expo, referring to stalled trade deals, trade wars and tariffs against U.S. pork that have occurred since the beginning of U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration.

“You’ve got to take the president, Secretary (Sonny) Perdue, other leaders at their word when they’re saying they’ve got the back of the American farmer.”

It’s hard to imagine a more impassioned free-trade advocate than Giordano. For many years at the World Pork Council he has lauded trade deals with Asian and Latin American nations while denouncing their opponents and furiously pushed back against the reluctance of Washington legislators to push through the Trans-Pacific Partnership in the last years of former U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration, when it had both administration and Republican support.

That deal died the day Trump took office, and trade access for the U.S. pork industry has suffered many setbacks since. Rather than the ever-increasing access that has occurred since the Canada-U.S. free trade deal was signed in 1988, the future seems to threaten less access.

“Trade’s been really good, and that in large (part) is what has driven the expansion of the herd in the U.S., and now we’re in the midst of … five new (slaughter) plants coming on stream,” said Giordano.

Were those plants set up in anticipation of TPP being approved?

Has the U.S. industry massively expanded, going from a net importer to a giant net exporter in a little more than 20 years because of increased trade access?

Those are questions floating in front of Giordano, who tries to be hopeful about the present plethora of problems being fixed.

“I think the administration wants us to sell more abroad, and that’s ultimately what our producers want,” he said.

“We’re kind of in a transition from the post-World War Two trading system to something different.”

Giordano isn’t just a trade idealist. He sees it connected to the prosperity that U.S. hog farmers enjoy as trade expands and the world market becomes more integrated.

The U.S. wasn’t safe from economic calamity when it wasn’t a significant exporter, as was seen 20 years ago.

“We don’t want to go through what some of us who have been around for a while witnessed in the late ’90s,” he said.

“You see people you know losing things they worked really hard for, and that’s really tough.”

Anxiety is high now, but good news on the trade dispute side would alleviate much of the fear.

“Obviously we want to see them get resolved sooner rather than later,” he said.

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