Trade and national security threats, retaliatory tariffs, intellectual property theft, and declarations of import-export imbalances have dominated the news and international policy debate in 2018, leaving many unanswered questions.

“The chaos began in January of this year with U.S. tariffs on imports of Chinese solar panels and washing machines and has continued to get more complicated,” said Jason Grant, director of the Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Center for Agricultural Trade. “People want to know how accurate these claims are and what they need to look out for – if their businesses will be affected or if the overall economic outlook will shift.”

The center is housed in the Virginia Tech Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics and became an official Virginia Tech center with five full-time, tenured faculty in April 2017.

“We have a group of experts who really understand the farm economy,” said Grant. “We do analysis, we do research, we track tariffs, and we monitor how sensitive exports and imports are to changes in tariff and other non-tariff trade barriers. We’re on the ground working to understand the implications, particularly for U.S. and Virginia agriculture.”

Using tariff and trade-flow data from the United Nations and the United States Department of Agriculture, trade center faculty model the likely impacts of specific trade barriers and use this information to inform audiences ranging from academia to federal and state government agencies to the general public.

“Tracking tariffs and trade policies is a messy exercise, but by analyzing them, we can determine what kinds of trade obstacles products will face when going into foreign markets,” said Grant. “And with this data, we can answer questions like ‘what will a high-magnitude tariff jump, like the one China just imposed on U.S. soybeans, do to U.S. exports?’”

This type of work, coupled with the center’s knowledge base, has recently attracted attention from sources, including The Washington Post, Fox News, and CBS News, looking to sort through the trade disputes and inform the public.

As an expert on Chinese trade, Professor Mary Marchant, the center’s education lead, has provided insights specific to the U.S.-China trade dispute.

“From an agricultural marketing perspective, the U.S. is a developed country, so there’s not a lot of domestic growth,” Marchant said. “We’re dependent on the export market for growth and new consumers. China, however, is a developing country with nearly 1.4 billion people and a growing middle class with changing dietary preferences. They’re switching from a plant-based diet to a protein, animal-based diet. As a result, they need animal feed, which is where we come in with our agricultural products, like soybeans.”

Marchant has collaborated with Chinese counterparts to investigate China’s agricultural trade policies and understand their impact on U.S. market access to China for over a decade. She recently attended China’s Agricultural Outlook Forum in Beijing, where her research team presented its findings.

In addition to Grant and Marchant, trade center-affiliated faculty members include Ambassador Richard Crowder, former chief agricultural negotiator to the United States Trade Representative; Professor David Orden, the center’s agricultural policy lead; and Professor Everett Peterson, the center’s research head.

The Virginia Tech Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics is also home to other faculty who specialize in agribusiness and commodity markets that have played an important role in determining the future outlook for U.S. farmers and agricultural businesses. Associate Professor Olga Isengildina-Massa has been specifically sought for her expertise in futures markets and commodity production forecasts.

The center’s vision is to become a national leader and a resource for agricultural trade information. To that end, affiliated faculty have contributed findings to organizations and agencies, including the Office of the Chief Economist of the United States Department of Agriculture, the Foreign Agriculture Service, and the World Trade Organization. The center also hosts events and seminars to bring further trade knowledge to campus and will host Chad Bown of the Peterson Institute for International Economics on Oct. 5 for a talk titled “Trade Policy in the Age of Trump.” The event is open to the Virginia Tech community, but interested parties must RSVP by Sept. 24.

-          Written by Jillian Broadwell