Ag Leaders on NAFTA Talks

Farm Groups Call for Conclusion of Trade Talks and Caution Against Withdrawal

Jerry Hagstrom
By  Jerry Hagstrom , DTN Political Correspondent
Talks continue in the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement. U.S. agricultural groups don't want any harm to U.S. exports, but they want to limit exports of fruits and vegetables from Mexico while requiring Canada to open its dairy and poultry markets to broader access. (DTN photo)

WASHINGTON (DTN) -- House Agriculture Committee leaders and a group of prominent farm lobbyists on Tuesday called on the Trump administration not to withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement and to finish the negotiations quickly to avoid a decline in U.S. farm exports.

Agriculture Committee Chairman Michael Conaway, R-Texas, and ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., met with the lobbyists to discuss NAFTA.

At a news conference afterward, Conaway, Peterson, American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall, and pork, dairy, grains and fruit, and vegetable lobbyists said they were unified in opposition to withdrawal and in favor of a quick end to negotiations.

But the difficulty in their mission was demonstrated when dairy lobbyists defended the Trump administration's proposals to force Canada to end its supply management system.

NAFTA talks began in mid-August, but the needle has moved little. The next round of talks are set to begin Nov. 15 in Mexico, two days earlier than originally planned, to further discuss some of the issues surrounding textiles, labor, services and intellectual property.

United Fresh Produce Association President Tom Stenzel also acknowledged that in the meeting, Georgia and Florida House members stood up for the administration's proposal to allow southeastern tomato growers to use trade remedy laws against Mexico when there are surges of imports during the southeastern growing season.

United Fresh acknowledges that the southeastern growers face a challenge, but the group is opposed to the seasonal produce proposal, Stenzel said. Canada has said it will defend its dairy supply management system as a point of national pride while Mexico has said that the seasonal produce proposal is unacceptable.

In a formal statement, Conaway said, "All parties today were on the same page -- NAFTA is important to agriculture and agriculture must remain a top priority in the negotiations."

"I am hopeful that both Canada and Mexico will come to the next round of negotiations prepared to have substantive conversations," Conaway said. "We are eager to conclude these negotiations and to move on to inking new agreements that expand trade opportunities for American agricultural producers."

Peterson did not vote for NAFTA, but said Tuesday, "There have been a lot of good things that have happened under NAFTA. I'm supportive of efforts to renegotiate NAFTA, but we need to make sure the end result will work for agriculture, and that we don't cause any harm to agriculture markets."

Peterson added that he remains concerned about the impact Canada's supply management program is having on U.S. dairy and poultry producers. "I have expressed my concerns to the administration and urge them to continue working to get these farmers a fair deal. We can't go backward."

At the news conference, lobbyists for the National Milk Producers Federation and the International Dairy Foods Association said the administration is correct to take an aggressive stand with Canada on dairy issues.

But responding to a question from DTN, Peterson said he did not vote for NAFTA originally because he didn't believe the dairy or sugar provisions were fair to U.S. producers. Peterson said he is glad dairy is being considered in the negotiations, but "I wouldn't bet the ranch on getting anything done."

He also said that the province of Quebec, where many dairy farmers live and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is from, is "like South Florida -- whoever wins becomes prime minister."

The lobbyists emphasized that the uncertainty surrounding NAFTA is hurting exports in an increasingly competitive international economy.

U.S. Grains Council President and CEO Tom Sleight said the South American grain companies "are improving competitiveness every day."

Nick Giordano, the vice president and counsel for the National Pork Producers Association said, "We're at the tip of the spear in many markets."

The European Union and other countries are already seeking free trade agreements with key U.S. markets such as Japan and Mexico, he noted.

Reflecting on President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw from the Trans Pacific Partnership negotiations, Giordano said, "We are going to lose U.S. pork exports to Japan."

Stenzel said administration officials have told lobbyists that the threat to withdraw from NAFTA is a negotiating tactic, but he said the public rhetoric, including that from Trump, is "disruptive" to business.

The meeting and the press conference seemed to reflect statements by another lobbyist that the administration's view that it would "do no harm" on NAFTA has changed to "do no harm unless we can't get a deal." That's why, the lobbyist said, Ag leaders recently sent a letter to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross about their concerns.

The U.S. Grains Council and the National Corn Growers Association also released a report on the importance of exports in each congressional district.

Wine and corn-refining lobbyists were present at the meeting, but not at the news conference, according to a House Agriculture Committee news release.

October 25 letter to Commerce Secretary Ross…

U.S. Grains Council/National Corn Growers Association — How Much Do Exports Matter? Evaluating the Economic Contributions of U.S. Grain Exports on State and Congressional District Economies…

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Jerry Hagstrom