The University of Georgia’s recent study on the potential effect of the “new NAFTA” on the state’s vegetable and berry growers is drawing friendly fire.

Former Georgia governor and current Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said the conclusions in a University of Georgia study about the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement are “flat wrong.”

Perdue, himself a University of Georgia graduate, penned an opinion piece about the study that was published by The Macon Telegraph and also sent out as a news release by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The University of Georgia study, called “The Impact of the USMCA on Georgia’s Small Fruit and Vegetable Industries,” concluded Georgia’s blueberry and vegetable industries will suffer considerable losses if the deal is ratified. The study said Georgia would lose nearly one billion dollars in annual economic output and more than 8,000 jobs, according to the release.

“The sensational assertions are flat wrong,” Perdue said in his column. “As a proud UGA alumnus, I’m here to tell you USMCA is good for Georgia’s farmers and all American agriculture.”
Perdue said the USMCA improves “virtually every component” of the existing North American Free Trade Agreement and Georgia’s agriculture stands to gain significantly.

Perdue wasn’t the only critic of the Georgia study.

I recently visited with Driscoll’s Soren Bjorn, president of the Americas, about the Georgia study.

Bjorn felt that The Packer’s article about the study continued a narrative from Southeast fruit and vegetable organizations who argue that extra protection is needed by growers.

That’s not the right approach, he said. 

In addition, the study overlooked the fact that blueberry production in the Southeast was virtually non-existent before the North American Free Trade Agreement came into effect in 1994.

“If we really go back to when NAFTA was put in place in 1994, there was no meaningful blueberry production in Florida, Georgia and Mexico,” he said. “All that got created after 1994 and so the creation of the modern blueberry industry we have today has nothing to do with NAFTA.”

He pointed out that per capita consumption of blueberries has increased from a third of a pound when NAFTA was implemented to about 2 pounds per capita now. Both domestic and imports suppliers have all shared in that growth he said. And U.S. imports of Mexican blueberries are lower than those from Canada, Chile and Peru.

Just as NAFTA 1.0 didn’t dictate how the blueberry industry developed, Bjorn said the USMCA doesn’t change anything in terms of the U.S. trading relationship with Mexico.

In fact, the only changes in the agreement may drive up costs of labor in Mexico.

So the narrative that more protection is needed against Mexico, Bjorn said, misses on the need for other priorities for the Southeast.

“What really needs to happen is that the Southeast needs to make sure it stays up with innovation as opposed to asking for protection,” he said. He noted that average yields for Florida and Georgia blueberry growers are about 4,000 pounds per acre, compared with yields in some Peruvian blueberry fields of 16,000 to 18,000 pounds per acre. Those higher yields are related to better production technology and improved varieties, he said.

Frost protection could help Southeast growers produce more consistent crops from year to year.
Rather than seasonal trade provisions granting domestic producers protection against imports, Bjorn argued for investment in innovation instead.

“If we want to go on ask our government for help, let’s go and ask for the help with innovation — innovation on new varieties, new technology, mechanization of the harvest — in all those things,” he said. Farm bill funds could help address those issues for Southeast growers, he said.

Bjorn said Driscoll’s has invested in berry operations in the Southeast and those berries can easily compete with imports.

“Innovation is really the way forward,” he said. “Protection will drive the category backwards.”

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