As this piece goes to print, the Democratic-led House and the Republican-led Senate are in a tussle over the second COVID-19 relief package in the United States. The package will determine, among many things, spending on unemployment, continued mortgage-deferral measures, support for flailing businesses, and government spending on the food and agriculture sector. On food and ag alone, new spending proposals range from $20 billion in the Senate bill (HEALS Act) to $33 billion in the House bill (HEROES Act), which is on top of the $14 billion doled out in March through the CARES Act.
Even though the new COVID-19 relief spending is contentious, it is inevitable that a new bill will pass the U.S. Congress.
As we are myopic in our view to what happens here in the United States on the COVI-D19 economic stimulus response, I am mindful that the U.S. government is developing significant economic measures in a vacuum, without any real consideration of the impacts on our USMCA partners. We just implemented a significant economic accord with Mexico and Canada, and it would make sense for the three governments to coordinate on spending measures to ensure the health and safety of all our people. And in particular, when it comes to regional food supply, our governments could and should have planned together on requirements for targeted funding for nutrition assistance, worker safety, COVID-19 testing for workers crossing borders, direct support to farmers, and enhanced support to local food banks and local markets.
On food and agriculture spending, Mexico is taking a “tighten the belt” (i.e., austerity) approach, the U.S. is taking a “open the piggy bank” (massive spending) approach, and Canada is taking a “something in-between” approach. There is no coordination on policy or spending.
On the bright side, there is a global coordinating body where surprisingly, the three governments are working together; it’s a question of whether back in the home capitols, policy makers are paying attention to their representatives. It’s called the World Trade Organization. Remember the WTO? On May 28, our USMCA partner, Canada, led an effort to issue parameters around acceptable farm support measures implemented by governments during COVID-19. Both Mexico and the US signed on to a statement supporting only those policy actions that facilitate open and predictable trade in food and agriculture products.
Making statements is one thing. Collaborating on action on policy and spending is another.
If there is one lesson coming out of the global pandemic, it is that working together yields better outcomes than trying to go-it-alone, whether that apply to wearing masks to limit the spread of the virus, establishing stay-at-home orders, collaborating on development of a global vaccine, implementing travel restrictions, facilitating immigration, supporting critical production and trade, or addressing global food security.
Perhaps Canada has is right? The “in-between” approach is likely the best bet. In my view, Mexico is not spending enough on targeted food and agriculture assistance during the crisis and the US is probably spending too much in some places and not enough in others (e.g., woefully underspending in supplemental nutrition assistance).
Is it too much to ask the three governments to sit down and construct a North American approach to food and agriculture policy and spending during the pandemic? I don’t think so. But then again, I’m not running for re-election.
* Devry Boughner Vorwerk is CEO of DevryBV Sustainable Strategies, Board Member of the US-Mexico Foundation, and former Corporate Vice President of Global Corporate Affairs at Cargill. Twitter: @DevryBV