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Pros, cons of free trade with Thailand heard

Sidney Herald, Sidney, Montana, US

Pros, cons of free trade with Thailand heard

Bill Vander Weele | Sidney Herald

16 July 2005

Questions regarding opening up the market for sugar imports was a feature of Monday’s teleconference involving Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., and members of the Thailand delegation.

Baucus invited the delegation to discuss free trade opportunities, trade negotiations and trade issues during a conference in Great Falls Monday morning. Via teleconference, the meeting was shown in Sidney, Scobey and Havre.

"I think that it’s important that our concerns at home are known and known early," Baucus said.

According to the Great Falls Tribune, Thailand imported $6.3 billion worth of goods from the United States in 2004. Top imports included electric circuits and switches, office machines, optic, photo and medical equipment. In 2004, the United States imported $17.57 billion of goods from Thailand including electric parts for telephones, television receivers through monitors and projectors, office machine parts and automatic data processors.

Steve Sing, general manager of Sidney Sugars, believes Thailand is the second largest exporter of sugar in the world. "So it could affect us," Sing said. "The country exports sugar into the United States."

A sugar beet farmer from the Hysham area said at the conference, "We have some concerns. Basically our market is full up already. This may shrink our industry."

Sugar producers said they are facing challenges because of NAFTA, the possibility of CAFTA passing, and future trade agreements with South Africa and Panama.

"If, for some reason, the sugar industry leaves our town, the machinery dealership will probably disappear and our school may need to close," said the grower from the Hysham area. "It’s going to hit at home eventually."

Baucus explained to the Thai delegation that many eastern Montana cities are seeing population drops. "It’s an issue," Baucus said about sugar production. "People in these towns don’t have many options."

State senator and sugar beet grower Don Steinbeisser, Sidney, said, "I know that without sugar beets, our community will probably die away. Growers would go out of business."

Steinbeisser added, "If CAFTA passes, it adds more sugar to the market. We can’t have any more sugar in the market unless a lot of people go off their diets and eat more sugar."

Baucus said, "There are sensitive issues of course. None more so for Montanans than sugar. I know the negotiators understand that, especially given our experience with CAFTA, and I am confident that a resolution can be found to satisfy the concerns of Montana sugar beet growers."

Thailand is currently the 16th largest market for American agricultural products. In the past year, U.S. exports of wheat and grains nearly doubled to almost $100 million.

U.S. agricultural exporters face tariffs in Thailand that average 24 percent.

"Despite these high tariffs, agriculture trade with Thailand is already booming," Baucus said. "Just imagine how much U.S.-Thai agriculture trade could increase if these tariffs are reduced to zero under a free trade agreement. Some estimate that a reduction in Thailand’s trade barriers would boost U.S. exports by $300 million a year."

Herb Karst, past president of the National Barley Growers, stressed how farmers could benefit from the agreement with Thailand.

"It’s important to point out how important these agreements are," Karst said.

Baucus said, "We know if we are going to do better economically, we have to learn a lot more about the opportunities in our country and worldwide. Trade agreements are very important. The benefits for some are huge and will continue to grow."

The beef industry also stands to benefit, since in the past Thailand’s chief exporters for beef have been the United States and Australia. One member of the Thai delegation described U.S. beef as "excellent."

Baucus urged state residents to contact his office or the offices of Sen. Conrad Burns or Rep. Denny Rehberg to voice their feelings about free trade with Thailand. "The squeaky wheel gets the grease," Baucus said.