Trade war risk is the latest threat to some of Trump’s biggest supporters: farmers

  • President Trump's tariffs have put a bullseye on the backs of rural families across the country, which stand to lose hundreds of thousands of jobs as America's trading partners fight back.
  • Already, China has laid out a list of retaliation targets, including grains, pork and soybeans, putting America's food and agriculture sectors at the tip of the spear.
  • While we need to negotiate for better deals, let's not put farmers and their families at risk with job-killing tariffs.
Ty Wright | Bloomberg | Getty Images
A farmer drives a combine while harvesting soybeans.

International trade is a complex system with decisions made in one country having far-reaching consequences in others. Last week, President Trump announced his latest set of tariffs – this time worth $50 to $60 billion of Chinese products – with the goal of boosting the U.S. economy and protecting America's workers and businesses.

These are on top of the far-reaching tariffs he announced earlier this month on a majority of steel and aluminum imports. Despite the president's best intentions, these actions have put a bullseye on the backs of rural families across the country, which stand to lose hundreds of thousands of jobs as America's trading partners fight back.

According to a recently-released study by Trade Partnership Worldwide, the president's steel and aluminum tariffs alone would result in the loss of nearly 500,000 U.S. jobs, with approximately 25,000 lost jobs in the agricultural sector alone.

As CNN Money put it, "Historically, agricultural products take a hit when the U.S. targets imports of industrial goods. Other countries have imposed countermeasures like tariffs on U.S. goods and sometimes outright bans that have depressed sales."

Sure enough, following the president's announcement last week, China laid out a list of retaliation targets, including grains, pork and soybeans, putting America's food and agriculture sectors at the tip of the spear.

While President Trump's tariffs could harm America's rural communities, he is correct that many of our trading agreements are in need of an update to better serve the needs of a 21st Century economy. For example, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has been a historic success, significantly increasing exports to our immediate neighbors Canada and Mexico, and lowering prices for American consumers-economists estimate that NAFTA has boosted the U.S. economy by $127 billion annually. Of course, improvements to the agreement can and should be made so it continues to work well.

However, the new tariffs are a troubling warning sign that this administration is ignoring the voices of some of President Trump's most loyal supporters. Seventy-five percent of farm-belt voters sent President Trump to the Oval Office based on his promise to "make America great again." With the food and agricultural industries supporting 43 million jobs, many in rural America are concerned that the steel and aluminum tariffs, and now the proposed tariffs against China, will lead to retaliation against American agriculture, directly hitting the president's base.

Already, China has threatened a 15 percent duty on products ranging from wine to fresh fruit to dried fruits and nuts. Worse, yet, they have proposed a 25 percent duty on American pork.

Fortunately, the Administration is in talks with China to avoid these very repercussions. That's good news for families and job creators throughout rural America and will hopefully allow the administration to focus on the bigger issue for our nation's future: improving and expanding our trade agreements.

America's farmers and agriculture industry trust President Trump and believe he has their best interests at heart. But if his administration continues to take actions that directly harm rural communities, that loyalty will be tested and ultimately erode. Tariffs are a warning sign, but failing to preserve and modernize NAFTA would be a bridge too far.

After so much progress, we cannot turn back the clock and deny American farmers access to critical markets. If President Trump wants to show one of his most loyal groups of supporters that he intends to stand by his commitments, he should focus on renegotiating and advancing NAFTA, as opposed to issuing job-killing tariffs against steel, aluminum and Chinese products.

Commentary by Casey Guernsey, a seventh-generation farmer, former Missouri state legislator and chairman of the Agri-Business Committee. Rep. Guernsey is leading an effort called "Retaliation Hurts Rural Families" project, a diverse roster of spokespeople seeking to ensure rural voices are heard and helping the Administration understand the impact of these tariffs could have on rural economies. The project is part of Americans for Farmers & Families, a broad-based coalition of more than 100 food and agriculture stakeholders focused on preserving and modernizing NAFTA.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.

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