NAFTA talks will resume in late February in Mexico. ( )

The fate of the proposed seasonal trade protection of perishable products remains cloudy as the U.S., Canada and Mexico prepare to enter the seventh round of talks to modernize the North American Free Trade Agreement.

The seasonal and perishable products provision falls under “anti-dumping and countervailing duty” measures and would address trade issues specific to fruits, vegetables and other crops. Among other things, it would allow trade law enforcers to consider dumping allegations on a seasonal cycle rather than a calendar year import cycle.

The provision has both supporters and opponents in the U.S. fresh produce industry, with Southeast U.S. growers often speaking in favor of it and tree fruit exporters and other parts of the industry warning that the provision could result in retaliation against U.S. exports to Mexico and Canada.

Last year, 11 large produce marketers formed a group called the Produce Coalition for NAFTA, spelling out support for continued duty-free access to Canada and Mexico and opposition to proposed seasonal dumping rules.

In Florida, where growers point to a flood of Mexican tomato and other produce imports since NAFTA was put in place, support for the seasonal trade protection remains firm.

Mike Stuart, president of the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, said Feb. 8 that the seasonal trade protection continues to be included in the U.S. list of objectives within the NAFTA agreement.

“It is a provision based on language directed by Congress in the Trade Promotion Authority and any agreement that comes back and does not specifically address that issue is not fulfilling the wishes of Congress for TPA,” he said. “We continue to be hopeful that through the negotiations we will be able to come to some resolution and ensure that producers of seasonal and perishable crops will have access to trade remedy law that applies to every other commodity or manufacturer in the U.S.”

Lance Jungmeyer, president of the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, said the seasonal trade provision would open the door for protectionism among the trading partners. He noted government officials in Canada and Mexico have expressed opposition to the provision and many U.S. fresh produce exporters also are against it.


Dark cloud

One development that seemed negative for the provision was a Feb. 1 announcement by Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., that he removed the hold on the confirmation process of for U.S. Trade Representative Ag Negotiator nominee Gregory Doud. Flake has been an opponent of the seasonal trade remedy for perishable products and for that reason had put a hold on the confirmation process for Doud.

Flake said he lifted the hold on Doud after receiving commitments on North American Free Trade Agreement-related trade priorities from both the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.

“While certainly there are areas in the NAFTA agreement ripe for modernization, adding ill-advised seasonal or regional components to existing trade remedies would lead to needless trade restrictions, devastating economic consequences, and likely retaliation,” Flake said in a news release after he released the hold.

Flake said he will work toward a solution with the Trump administration and Hatch as well as utilizing additional “procedural tools.”

Flake said in the release that he secured a written commitment from Hatch — whose committee would have to approve any revised trade agreement — to address concerns about seasonal or regional trade remedies.

The release said Flake also received a commitment from U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer to meet with Arizona stakeholders who rely on NAFTA and would be negatively impacted by the proposed provision.

Flake’s office did not return a call seeking further comment.


Next up

NAFTA talks will resume in late February in Mexico City and Mark Powers, president of the Northwest Horticultural Council, said there are hopes for another round in March. Powers said the council believes the season trade protection provision sets a bad precedent and would be harmful to tree fruit exporters.