NAFTA is mutually beneficial, say ag ministers, but needs to be ‘modernized’

President Trump calls NAFTA a bad deal for the United States and insists it needs a major overhaul. But today the agriculture ministers of Canada, Mexico, and the United States said that while the agreement should get an update, it has been mutually beneficial for farmers and ranchers in the three North American countries. After a face-to-face meeting in Savannah, Ga., the ministers said they were laying the groundwork for a modernization of the 1994 pact.

“What hasn’t changed in 25 years?” said Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue during a news conference nearly in the shadow of a container ship at the port of Savannah. “There are things that need to be modernized,” he said, listing advances in technology and food safety standards along with a vastly higher volume of trade and changes in diet among the half-billion consumers in the three nations.

Perdue likened the upcoming renegotiation, which could start as soon as mid-August, to a forthright discussion within a family. Mexican Agriculture Minister Jose Calzada Rovirosa said the trade talks would reflect the “evolution” of NAFTA. And Canadian Agriculture Minister Lawrence MacAulay said that “there are always going to be little issues” among trading partners, but that they are dwarfed by the $85 billion in annual food and agriculture trade among the three nations.

Between them, Canada and Mexico account for one-third of all U.S. food and ag trade. They are the two largest food suppliers to the U.S. market, and they rank No. 2 and No. 3, respectively, as customers for U.S. food and ag exports.

MacAulay, Calzada, and Perdue characterized their two-day, get-acquainted meeting as an opportunity to build good will ahead of the negotiations, which will be handled by trade officials. The agriculture ministers said they would consult with the trade negotiators as issues are discussed.

“Our three nations are connected not only geographically but through our deeply integrated agricultural markets,” the ministers said in a joint statement. “Our trading relationship is vital to the economies—and the people—of our respective countries. … We share a commitment to keeping our markets open and transparent so that trade can continue to grow. That mutual commitment was reaffirmed in our discussions. … Our three countries remain committed to continued collaboration to ensure a safe and reliable supply chain that makes the North American agriculture sector more competitive.”

During the presidential campaign, Trump said he would abandon NAFTA if he could not win revisions favorable to the United States. In late April, he softened that stance and said, “We’re going to give renegotiation a good, strong shot.” The president also said he had come close to terminating the tri-national pact.

The agriculture ministers, said Perdue, view NAFTA as “a favorable agreement for our three sectors in all three countries from an agricultural perspective. That is the communication I gave to President Trump … in the main, agriculture in the United States has benefited.”

U.S. farm groups have urged the administration not to disrupt agricultural trade. Calzada described producers in Mexico as anxious about the negotiations.

There have been areas of friction between the countries over agricultural trade, though the ministers declined to discuss them during their press conference. Mexico and the United States are completing an agreement on sweetener trade, resolving one issue. Trump recently criticized Canada for using its supply management system to block imports of U.S. ultra-filtered milk, used in making cheese. Canada’s exports of softwood lumber have been a perennial area of dispute between the nations.

To read the joint statement of the agriculture ministers, click here.

To watch a video of the ministers’ 24-minute news conference, click here.