By Editorial Board Originally Appeared on The Ventura County Star
As proponents of free trade, we find it difficult to make protectionist arguments against the Trump administration’s decision last week to lift a ban on lemon imports from Argentina, even though Ventura County is one of the top lemon-producing areas in the United States and stands to lose dollars and jobs. Agriculture should not be exempt from competition in our global economy, even if it causes pain.
We do side with our citrus growers when they express longtime concerns about invasive pests hitching a ride on Argentine lemons and destroying crops here. Florida’s citrus crops have been devastated by Huanglongbing disease (citrus greening) caused by the Asian citrus psyllid, and California officials and growers are working hard to prevent its spread here. The last thing they need now is suspect Argentine fruit.
Our biggest problem with Trump’s decision, however, is not necessarily the substance of it — President Obama, after all, had made the same decision last year — but rather how and why it was made. Like so many actions coming out of the White House these days, the lemon ruling smacks of rash Trump impulse, backroom dealing and broken promises.
Lemons are a $260 million industry in Ventura County. More than 90 percent of America’s domestic lemons are grown in California now, and citrus crops as a whole provide about 22,000 jobs in the state. Meanwhile, Argentina is the world’s largest lemon producer.
The U.S. banned Argentine lemon imports 16 years ago after California growers went to court with concerns about pests and diseases. The Obama administration in December pledged to lift the ban, but then Trump imposed a 60-day review of all pending rule changes. A second 60-day delay followed, but then the U.S. Department of Agriculture on Monday announced it would allow imports from Argentina’s top-producing northwest region starting May 26.
“We were completely blindsided,” Joel Nelsen, president of the California Citrus Mutual trade group, told The Associated Press. “They just flat-out ignored us, and that’s completely unacceptable.”
But the story gets worse. Just a few days earlier, President Trump met with Argentine President Mauricio Macri at the White House. “I know about all the lemons,” Trump said at a joint news conference with Macri. “And believe it or not, the lemon business is a big, big business. … One of the reasons he’s here is about lemons. And I’ll tell him about North Korea, and he’ll tell me about lemons.”
Richard Pidduck, a citrus grower and chairman of the U.S. Citrus Science Council, told CNBC: “It is evident that the California citrus industry is the pawn in a greater trade deal between the Trump administration and Argentina.”
Rep. Julia Brownley, D-Westlake Village, had been working with our growers to keep the ban in place and was even more blunt. “President Trump threw the U.S. citrus industry — American growers and American workers — under the bus in order to deliver a favor to a personal friend,” she said in a statement. “It is clear that Argentina does not have an inspection regime in place to prevent the spread of devastating, invasive pests and diseases. This decision will wreak havoc on American growers, and if pests and disease spread, it could result in the destruction of our domestic crops.”
It could even be political payback from a president who doesn’t much like California, some say. “California is not in the president’s best graces,” said Pidduck. “We’re an easy industry to give up.”
And then, of course, there’s all of Trump’s talk about “America first” — about protecting our jobs and businesses and way of life. “I think there was a lot of hope (among growers) that maybe, with an administration pledging to protect domestic industries from foreign competition, that they might have an ally,” John Krist, CEO of the Farm Bureau of Ventura County, told The Star this week. “That turns out not to be the case.”
Argentine farmers contend they have complied with all U.S. regulations and say there are no sanitary problems with their fruit. But Krist and others say they’re not convinced.
We don’t believe “America first” should mean undue protection for American agriculture. At the same time, the ongoing concerns about Argentine pests gave Trump an easy way to walk his talk with our domestic lemon industry. His failure to do so — and all the possible motivations behind it — should be a wakeup call for all American businesses looking for a dependable ally in Washington.