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Ag Trade Unresolved as NAFTA Nears Deadline

Curmudgeonly U.S. trade representative Robert Lighthizer was explicit: “We hope for major breakthroughs” before negotiations for the new NAFTA resume at the end of February in Mexico City. Agriculture was a sticking point during a week of talks in Montreal, particularly the U.S. call for Canada to eliminate its supply management system for dairy, poultry, and eggs.

U.S. farm groups lamented the slow pace. “We’re happy to see engagement on issues by Canada and Mexico,” said the Farm Bureau. “Even so, we’re still facing uncertainty – more than we want as we head into planting season.” The Farmers for Free Trade campaign said, “As we head into planting season, farmers need the confidence that exports to America’s two most important agricultural export markets will remain viable.” Canada and Mexico generate one third of U.S. food and ag trade.

The NAFTA calendar calls for a final round of talks in March in Washington, avoiding the political entanglements of Mexico’s presidential election July 1 and U.S. midterm elections November 6. Talks easily could run past the informal U.S. deadline of March 31, which would require President Trump to ask Congress to extend the fast-track rule that guarantees a prompt up-or-down vote on trade agreements with no amendments allowed. “I think it’s going to be very difficult” to reauthorize fast-track, said Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA). Beyond NAFTA, Trump would need fast-track power for the administration’s promised string of bilateral trade deals that would replace multi-lateral agreements.

Mexico’s economy minister, Ildefonso Gaujardo, said a chapter on NAFTA food safety rules was nearly complete and was ripe for conclusion in the upcoming round. The Canadian Produce Marketing Association said it was optimistic about the food-safety chapter and language on agricultural biotechnology.

“We still have a way to go concerning Canada’s tariffs on U.S. dairy imports and want a reduction in – if not complete elimination of – tariffs on dairy, poultry, and eggs there,” said the Farm Bureau. “We continue to support a modernized NAFTA and will stick with the task for however long that may take.” Canada has defended stoutly its farm program, and Canadian dairy producers say they cannot afford further market openings.

NAFTA was a salient part of Trump’s campaign for president. Due to slow negotiations, he might finish his second year in office without fulfilling his promise to scrap NAFTA or to write a better deal.

Trump carried out his pledge to withdraw from the 12-nation TPP trade pact. The remaining TPP 11 (including Mexico and Canada) aim to sign a deal of their own next month. “If nothing else, this announcement should serve as a rallying cry for farmers, ranchers, and dairy producers calling for the new trade deals we were promised when the president walked away from TPP,” said Wheat Growers President Gordon Stoner. The big prize in TPP for U.S. agriculture was supposed to be greater access to Japan, the No. 5 market for U.S. farm exports.

This article was produced in collaboration with the Food & Environment Reporting Network, an independent, nonprofit news organization producing investigative reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.

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