Growers Waiting out NAFTA Saga as It Sails Into 2018

Growers Waiting out NAFTA Saga as It Sails Into 2018

Port Tampa Bay shipping channel

Do you suppose lawmakers have made a New Year’s resolution to nail down loose ends of NAFTA? Photo courtesy of Port Tampa Bay

As I wrote this, the fifth round of NAFTA negotiations had concluded, with the sixth round scheduled for January in Montreal. While the talks continue, southeastern produce growers are advocating a measure that calls for a separate domestic industry provision for perishable and seasonal products in antidumping and countervailing duty proceedings.

Although there is support from a number of grower organizations in the Southeast and other areas around the country, the perishable and seasonal proposal continues to draw heavy opposition from Mexico and much of U.S. agriculture. It’s also drawing fire from a few retail organizations (associations and individual companies). The good news is that despite the opposition, the administration continues to advocate for the proposal in the negotiations. And there has been some strong Congressional support from members of the Florida and Georgia delegations.

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As NAFTA negotiations move toward a conclusion between now and the end of March, the challenge will be to hold onto the provision as “horse-trading” begins in earnest. Further complicating the issue is a hold that has been placed by Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) on the confirmation Greg Doud as Chief Agricultural Negotiator at the U.S. Trade Representative’s office as a result of the provision. The hold was still in place as of this posting.

Diminishing Returns
There are a number of misconceptions and false arguments in the industry about what the perishable and seasonal proposal would and would not do.

Many believe that NAFTA has benefited all of agriculture, but of course we in Florida know that’s not the case. Since NAFTA’s passage in the 1990s, there has been a steady decline in both the acreage and production value in regions around the U.S., including Georgia blueberries and broccoli, Texas watermelon, California grapes and asparagus, and Florida bell peppers, tomatoes, squash, and eggplant.

The pace of that decline has grown in the past five to 10 years as the Mexican government has subsidized farmers to grow produce for the U.S. marketplace. Florida strawberry growers have seen their market eclipsed by Mexican imports by 184% since 2000.

Bell pepper farmers in Georgia have seen imports from Mexico grow threefold in that time period. Multigenerational family farms have shut down as a result — and once they’re gone, they’re gone for good.

Cause, Effect, and Confusion
One of the biggest arguments is that the perishable and seasonal ag proposal would cause retaliation by Mexico. The proposal would allow growers of seasonal and perishable goods, who often have no more than a matter of weeks to sell them, to bring trade cases when imports flood the market at unfair prices during that narrow marketing window. It recognizes agriculture is different from manufacturing and that a strawberry does not have the same shelflife as a sheet of steel.

This proposal is not a back-door mechanism for putting more tariffs on Mexican produce. It simply allows a trade remedy case to be brought in the specialty crop sector. The proposal would only be successful if unfair trading practices could be proven; otherwise, it wouldn’t apply.

If American farmers are being harmed by unfair trading practices, they should have the right to defend themselves and help save thousands of jobs on farms and in rural communities.

Another misconception is that the perishable and seasonal proposal is a special carve-out. Not so.

The trade remedy proposal simply gives America’s fruit and vegetable farmers the same rights to use U.S. trade enforcement laws that are available to other U.S. agriculture sectors when they are harmed by unfair trade practices.

Currently, seasonal and perishable producers are unable to pursue trade-related cases based on their own growing and marketing season. As a result, they are far more exposed than most other industries to import injury with no recourse. This proposal would allow all producers in the U.S. to have access to unfair trade remedies.

The NAFTA talks have been bumpy, and it’s not clear whether the specialty crop industry will be successful in our efforts to find relief for growers being harmed by cheap imports of Mexican produce. But the fact our proposal is on the table is testament to the significant efforts by our industry leadership and lawmakers to raise the issue and face criticism from many fronts. Stay tuned.