(May 22) A popular and largely inaccurate take on all the international wrangling of late — anti-dumping lawsuits, tariff threats, phytosanitary disputes — is that the only winners have been the lawyers involved.

Staunch free trade advocates take this view. They are emboldened in their arguments by two realities: The educated among us can’t deny the general efficacy of removing trade barriers, and no one thinks lawyers, as a group, are an endearing bunch to begin with.

This is an easy argument to make. It is virtually unassailable — in theory. But none of us lives in a theoretical world, and the very real profits (or losses) of an industry can be dramatically affected by free trade policies.

The devil, as they say, lies in the details. And in the fresh produce industry, the devil of free trade must be ferreted out in the only equitable fashion available — by filing lawsuits in courts or other official bodies, such as the International Trade Commission.

Yes, that’s right: Litigation can be good just as pain can be good. Both tell us important things.

It has been suggested — repeatedly on this very page, in fact — that parties involved in filing anti-dumping lawsuits against foreign competitors are relying too much on the courts. Or that they’re risking retaliation. Or that they’re standing in the way of free trade. Or that they’re trying to thwart competition.

This is the kind of adolescent hopefulness (“Can’t we all just get along?”) that sounds good but is really just plain silly. Dumping happens. It will continue to happen. Should the party on the losing end of it just turn away and pretend not to notice?

The systematic dumping of product in a foreign market, quite literally, is theft. It is the stealing of business through illegal pricing. Determining exactly what is and what is not dumping remains a matter of some dispute. Again, that’s why we have lawyers.

Florida’s tomato industry has been active in protecting its interests through litigation. An anti-dumping lawsuit against Mexico in the mid-1990s eventually led to a floor price for tomatoes imported from that country. More recently, it has been less successful — through its financial backing of the U.S. hothouse industry — in similar claims against Canadian producers.

Florida’s industry is now on the receiving end of such treatment. Canadian authorities determined that some Florida shippers were sending product north of the border at prices below the cost of production (which, by the way, seems to be a remarkably fluid number). The idea of negotiating a floor price for U.S. tomato exports to end that dispute was being floated in late April.

But something called the North American Tomato Trade Work Group was formed in February, no doubt as an outgrowth of the desire to end all the litigation. Through that group, tomato producers competing internationally may work together to avoid future litigious clashes.

Could they have reached this juncture without the lawyers and the dumping claims? The answer, arguably, is no. And will a suspension agreement that sets a floor price be the end of it all? Of course not.

Market share is what this is all about, and it’s big business. Who wants to be the sacrificial lamb to free trade? There are winners and losers to all of this, after all.

Apple and citrus shippers rely heavily on exports to countries other than Canada, for example. Many other items, primarily grown in the West, reach export buyers as well. But what about Southern vegetables like tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers and squash? Given low-cost competition from Mexico, that’s one big group of potential losers in the free trade debate.

Who has the moral authority to claim they shouldn’t pursue every recourse to ensure their survival?

None of this is to suggest more lawsuits are preferable to fewer ones or that every claim is equally credible. But for a third party looking on from the outside to blithely declare these lawsuits out-of-bounds borders on the absurd.

When it’s not your money at stake, the lines are clearly drawn in black and white. But most of what we’re talking about here lies in that gray middle. Again, that’s why we have lawyers.

Now we have President Bush’s steel tariffs and their possible repercussions in the fruit and vegetable business. Some viewed Bush’s move as politically driven, while others said it was a legitimate action designed to help an ailing industry that remains vital to national security interests. It’s hard to know who’s more right, but if the matter is ever settled, lawyers will no doubt play a role.

Spanish clementine producers, meanwhile, are eager to restart their exports to the U.S. after shipments were halted last season after the discovery of live Medfly larvae. Based on a risk management analysis, a proposed rule to again allow the imports for 2002-03 is forthcoming from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. U.S. citrus interests are skeptical. The debate may shape up as sound science vs. free trade.

The bet is that there will be litigation, whatever the USDA decides. Again, that’s why we have lawyers.