OPINION Dairy farmers ended 2019 with a string of positive steps that have set the stage for more progress in 2020 – progress that with just a few more steps will mean real gains for U.S. dairy producers.
The success that’s closest in sight is final congressional approval of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement to succeed the North American Free Trade Agreement. Thanks to some fruitful negotiations between the White House and House Democrats, the House approved the agreement Dec. 19, just in time to raise some holiday cheer before Christmas. Dairy’s gains under the new agreement would be substantial – an estimated $528 million in increased revenues during the agreement’s first six years. It would also offer protection for common cheese names as well as enforcement mechanisms to ensure repeal of Canada’s problematic Class 6 and Class 7 milk-price schemes.
The achievement wouldn’t have occurred without the patient determination of trade advocates in Washington. That includes our own staff in collaboration with the U.S. Dairy Export Council and the entire dairy community – and the grassroots efforts of farmers across the country. But the effort isn’t finished. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said no Senate vote on the new agreement will occur until after an impeachment trial is finished early next year.
We’re hopeful this delay won’t be long. But delays are always nerve-wracking because political tectonics can shift quickly, especially in a presidential election year. Until the ink is dry from President Donald Trump’s pen we won’t quit advocating for the trade agreement’s approval. It’s already come a long way. The year 2020 will see an immediate final push for approval; we will continue to lead that effort.
The next December accomplishment that will require more lift in 2020 is agricultural labor reform. The House reached an important milestone Dec. 11 when it approved its first farm-worker-labor package since 1986. That along with Senate passage of agricultural-guest-worker provisions in a failed immigration-reform effort in 2013 has been the closest Congress has come in more than a generation toward resolving the agricultural-labor crisis.
We supported the House bill because it would create a workable guest-worker program for dairy, a major improvement as compared to current policy. The overall bill is far from perfect. But it can only be improved – and a final law approved – if the Senate passes its own plan. That will then open a path for negotiation and modification with the House. That places our focus on the Senate as it crafts its own legislation. Such legislation is essential to alleviate dairy’s unique labor needs. It will be important in coming months for the Senate to approve a bill, then work through a conference committee to achieve final congressional approval. It’s a tall order but a necessary one – and one we believe is possible in 2020.
We are encouraged by the arrival of new leadership at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Dr. Stephen Hahn showed an understanding of the importance of mislabeled plant-based beverages as a public-health issue, pledging to explore the issue of fake dairy, immediately after his confirmation – through his statements in a colloquy with U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisconsin-2-Madison.
With the facts, public opinion and a significant part of the marketplace on our side, it’s crucial to keep that item on the FDA’s agenda in 2020 and usher in its successful resolution. Securing FDA enforcement of rules against misuse of dairy terms for plant-based products has long been difficult. That’s not because it’s unimportant, but because the FDA’s wide portfolio – which ranges from opioids and teen vaping to drug approvals and food-safety inspections – makes it easy for other important matters to be brushed aside. That simply can’t happen this time. Hahn’s predecessor, Scott Gottlieb, gave it attention. Given increased consumer interest in the issue and congressional urging to do the job, 2020 is a golden opportunity for real progress in the regulatory fight against dairy imposters.
On each of those issues we have the power to influence. On our website we have pages that help direct response on those and other important issues. Engagement is crucial in the year ahead. As always we will devote our full resources to the betterment of our members. We hope for your help as well.
Happy New Year. We’ve made a lot of progress. The best is yet to come.