Raul Urteaga Trani, general coordinator for International Affairs for Sagarpa, Mexico’s Ministry of Agriculture

NEW ORLEANS — Mexico and Canada are not alone in opposing the proposed seasonal produce protection provision in the talks to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, one leading Mexican agriculture official believes.

The seasonality provision for domestic produce growers that was introduced by U.S. negotiators in Ottawa in late September is “totally against” the principle of free trade and runs counter to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue’s pledge to do no harm to agriculture, said Raul Urteaga Trani, general coordinator for International Affairs for Sagarpa, Mexico’s Ministry of Agriculture. 

The proposal, supported by Florida growers and others, would make it easier to bring anti-dumping actions for seasonal producers. The proposed trade remedy would not require proving that the entire U.S. vegetable industry was harmed by imports over the course of a year, but only that imports caused damage to produce growers in a region during a limited market window.

In an Oct. 20 interview at the Produce Marketing Association’s Fresh Summit, Urteaga Trani said many U.S. importers, trade associations and U.S. exporters also oppose the provision.

Urteaga Trani said the seasonal produce protection provision, if part of the final agreement, would likely would spark anti-dumping actions against U.S. produce exports to Mexico.

“That proposal will invite many petitioners claiming real or bogus cases for imports of food under dumping proceedings,” he said. “Issuing protection for a group of growers and singling out products is very dangerous because then you are resorting to a situation where you are not being fair with producers of other products — for instance, apples,” he said.

Urteaga Trani said American consumers would also suffer if the provision is included.

“American consumers are accustomed now to enjoy fresh fruits and vegetables all year-round, and Mexican products in U.S. supermarkets precisely play that particular role,” he said.

NAFTA’s fate

Mexico is hopeful the provision will not be a part of any new NAFTA agreement. Negotiations on the deal are expected to continue at least through the first quarter of 2018.

“We are confident that U.S. business interests and consumer groups in this country will do whatever they have to do in order to convey the right message to policymakers in Washington,” he said. The interests of the private sector will ultimately bring influence to the talks, he said. 

“In the case of the agricultural sector, the statement of the producers for the three countries has been clear from the very beginning — do no harm to our agricultural system and,in the process of modernizing the agreement, let’s focus on how we can be more competitive as a region with the rest of the world,” he said.

While improvement in border crossings and tweaks in sanitary and phytosanitary inspections, for example, may be useful to a new NAFTA, a new anti-dumping trade remedy is not, he said.

Urteaga Trani also criticized the U.S. “sunset” proposal, which would call for the agreement to be approved again after perhaps five years.

“One of the important elements of the discussions right now is to keep certainty for our investors — that includes domestic investors but also American investors, Canadian investors and even global investors,” he said.

Mexico is the third most important market for U.S. agriculture exports and the U.S. is Mexico’s top destination for agriculture exports, he said. While Mexican officials are hopeful for a successful conclusion to NAFTA talks, he said the country will be prepared for any outcome and is looking at South American grain import options.

“Mexico doesn’t want to disrupt the supply chain we have on corn and soybeans from the U.S., but if Mexico doesn’t have any other choice but to retaliate against provisions that are clearly against NAFTA and open trade, then we are exploring our options too,” he said, noting Mexican officials recently completed trade mission to Brazil and Argentina to connect with corn and soybean exporters there.