(UPDATED, Nov. 9) With the next round of North American Free Trade negotiations set to start in Mexico City Nov. 17, House Agriculture Committee leaders convened a round-table discussion that stressed the importance of the trade agreement to farmers.

The Nov. 7 round-table discussion featured eight U.S. agriculture leaders, including Tom Stenzel, president and CEO of the United Fresh Produce Association.

Stenzel was out of the office and unavailable for comment, but Robert Guenther, senior vice president of public policy for the United Fresh, said in an e-mail that participants in the closed-door discussions agreed that any modernization of NAFTA should do no harm to current agricultural trade relations between the three countries.

Guenther said the panel urged also urged Congress to take an active role in ensuring that the U.S does not pull out of the agreement

For produce specific issues, Stenzel focused comments on the importance of strong science-based sanitary and phytosanitary requirements, Guenther said. He said Stenzel also stressed that the produce industry could not afford to erect protectionist barriers for certain sectors that can be used to retaliate against others.

Members of Congress asked panelists about sanitary and phytosanitary issues, the impact on agriculture if the U.S. pulls out of NAFTA and the perishable and seasonal provision the U.S. is currently pushing, he said. 

Guenther said that Stenzel indicated to members of Congress that there needs to be other ways than the seasonal protection provision to address the challenges some of the southern U.S. growers are facing with competition from Mexico.

“All parties today were on the same page — NAFTA is important to agriculture and agriculture must remain a top priority in the negotiations,” Rep. Micheal Conaway, R-Texas and chair of the House Agriculture Committee, said in a news release.

Conaway said agricultural leaders are eager to conclude the NAFTA negotiations and also put in place new trade agreements to expand trade for U.S. agriculture.

Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn. and ranking member of the committee, said any new agreement should not cause harm to agriculture markets.

The round-table discussion occurred at a time when there is uncertainty about the fate of the trade pact. President Donald Trump has said the U.S. will withdraw from NAFTA if an updated trade agreement does not benefit the U.S.

Meanwhile, Mexico and Canada have objected to several proposals from the U.S., including proposed anti-dumping protection for seasonal domestic producers of perishable crops, a sunset clause that would terminate the trade deal if it is not renegotiated every five years, and a proposal seeking minimum levels of U.S. content for autos.

Other participants in the discussion were:

  • Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation;
  • John Bode, president and CEO of the Corn Refiners Association;
  • Michael Dykes, president and CEO of the International Dairy Foods Association;
  • Shawna Morris, vice president for trade policy at the National Milk Producers Federation;
  • Nick Giordano, vice president and counsel, global government affairs for the National Pork Producers Council;
  • Tom Sleight, president and CEO of the U.S. Grains Council; and
  • Charles Jefferson, vice president of federal relations for the Wine Institute.