Opinion: American farmers holding breath over NAFTA ‘re-negotiation’

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Dave Dickey

Ask any U.S. farmer who knows something about growing grain crops whether their operation has benefited from the 23-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement and not surprisingly you’ll get “yes” (if not a “heck yes!”).

There is broad consensus that NAFTA has increased integration of agricultural markets in North America.  U.S. corn farmers in particular have benefited by the deal; before NAFTA, U.S. corn exports to Mexico were largely excluded.

In the 2015-2016 marketing year, U.S. producers sent more than 13 million bushels of corn to Mexico worth $2,517,965,646 (that’s YUGE).

Thus far in the current marketing year, corn exports to Mexico are up 4 percent from the previous year.

So you can probably guess U.S. corn producers are muttering to the White House, “Hey, if it ain’t broke don’t try to fix it.”

But NAFTA pre-negotiation talks have quietly begun between U.S., Mexico and Canada; and the formal process gets under way as early as August.

So it’s scary times for the U.S. corn producer who knows this iron-clad fact – corn is interchangeable.

Mexico can get their corn fix from Argentina just as easily as from America; so it’s deals like NAFTA that gives U.S. corn producers a competitive advantage that keeps export corn flowing.

Already the White House has slapped U.S. grain producers right across their John Deeres by rejecting the Trans-Pacific Partnership.  The American Farm Bureau Federation says that deal could have increased U.S. farm exports by some $5.3 billion annually.

United States Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer’s letter to Congress in mid-May starting the NAFTA renegotiation process was largely void of any details and made no specific reference to agriculture.

Farmers are lobbying members of the House of Representatives, U.S. Senators, trade industry groups – heck, even their own mothers – trying to avoid becoming collateral damage in NAFTA talks that include a huge range of other goods and services, from cars to intellectual property rights and data exchange. Expect those efforts to intensify.

Joseph Glauber, a senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute and former chief economist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture makes the same point:

“What really concerns me is that agriculture will somehow be collateral damage in a broader trade dispute related to, you name it, automotives or something where someone in the White House feels a trade deficit needs to be addressed.”

Here’s the thing.  Don’t believe anyone in the White House who claims NAFTA was a bad deal for U.S. agriculture.

Could it had done some things differently?  Of course.  Canada for example doesn’t allow anything near free trade when it comes to milk and eggs.

Could the deal stand refreshing?  Again yes.  After all it’s almost a quarter-century old.

But NAFTA certainly does not need to be ripped up when it comes to agricultural trade between Mexico, Canada, and the U.S.

About Dave Dickey

Dickey spent nearly 30 years at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s NPR member station WILL-AM 580 where he won a dozen Associated Press awards for his reporting. For 13 years, he directed Illinois Public Media’s agriculture programming. His weekly column for Big Ag Watch covers agriculture and related issues including politics, government, environment and labor. Email him at dave.dickey@investigatemidwest.org.

This column reflects the writer’s own opinions and not those of Big Ag Watch.

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