Opinion: NAFTA talk delays do not bode well for U.S. agriculture

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Dave Dickey

After a month of delay, the fifth round of North American Free Trade Agreement re-negotiations take place later this week in Mexico.

And the talks have gotten, to no one’s surprise, downright frosty if not ugly.  At the end of the fourth round, key negotiators were directly snipping at one another at the concluding press conference.

Mexican and Canadian negotiators strongly rejected U.S. proposals on seasonal produce and dairy, leading U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer to huffily declare how “everyone has to give up a little bit of candy.”

And Canada’s foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, pointed out the obvious, accusing Washington of pursuing a “winner take all” approach.

Not to be outdone, Mexican Economy Minister Ildefonso Guajardo said “Yes we want an agreement, yes we want to find a win-win situation, but this won’t be at the detriment to our national interests,”

Back in July, I blogged that despite what you were hearing out of the White House, for the most part NAFTA has served the interests of U.S. farmers.

The numbers don’t lie.

For example, in 2016 Mexico purchased almost $18 billion in U.S. Agricultural products, including $1.5 billion in soybeans, $1.3 billion in pork, $1.2 billion in dairy products and a whopping $2.5 billion in corn.

But for Lighthizer and his cadre of White House policy wonks that ain’t good enough because they say NAFTA has created an overall U.S. trade deficit, the success of U.S. ag be damned.

The truth is that Mexico up until now relied heavily on the U.S to feed its population to the detriment of its long-term food security.

But in recent months, Mexico is seeking out new agricultural trading partners, especially with Argentina and Brazil to provide beef, soybeans, and wheat.

Mexico clearly is hedging its bets that the NAFTA talks will fail and the U.S. will withdraw from the agreement.

And U.S. Big Ag is also becoming increasingly doubtful of a successful conclusion to the NAFTA talks.

After watching four rounds of nothing-burger negotiation when it comes to agricultural trade policy, the American Soybean Association publicly voiced its fear that the POTUS and Lighthizer are politically preparing the way for a NAFTA withdraw.

Deep divisions remain on non-agricultural issues including anti-corruption policies, digital trade, and intellectual property rights.

And if answers to those issues are not found soon, U.S. ag becomes a loser Bigly.

I think the NAFTA negotiations are reaching a tipping point.  If the U.S. continues to judge the merits of NAFTA re-negotiators primarily on whether or not it creates a U.S. trade deficit, the deal will collapse.

Mexico is preparing to move on.  Canada believes a deal is still possible, but only if the U.S. drops  winner-take-all negotiating tactics.

Something positive must come out of this week’s fifth round of NAFTA talks to give U.S. ag interests hope that the White House won’t mess up what has been a very good deal for American farmers.

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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