Craig Chandler/University Communications
The sixth round of negotiations over the North American Free Trade Agreement between the U.S., Canada and Mexico, held in Montreal, ended on Monday with no more certainty for farmers than when they started.
While U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said in closing statements that some progress was made, he also said negotiations are progressing slowly.
“We owe it to our citizens, who are operating in a state of uncertainty, to move much faster,” he said.
In farm country, that uncertainty and the potential for U.S. withdrawal from the agreement are major concerns, said Brian Kuehl, executive director of Farmers for Free Trade, a bipartisan campaign to restore support for agricultural trade.
“As we head into planting season, farmers need the confidence that exports to America’s two most important agricultural export markets will remain viable,” he said.
While the progress made in Montreal is heartening, it’s also clear negotiations could last longer than anticipated, he said.
Farmers for Free Trade held a media conference call from Montreal to speak out about the importance of NAFTA and farmers’ need for certainty.
NAFTA has integrated markets in North America and made the U.S., Canada and Mexico interdependent, said Darci Vetter, senior adviser for the organization and former chief U.S. agriculture negotiator. It has helped farmers diminish risk and reduce uncertainty, and the benefits go beyond farmers to the broader economy.
There is room for improvement in the agreement to ease the flow of agricultural trade, such as harmonizing sanitary and phytosanitary measures, but the foundation for agriculture needs to be protected and negotiations need to move quickly, she said.
“Frankly, time matters because uncertainty is costly. The longer we go without having clarity about the strength of that relationship with our partners, the more we provide incentive for our partners to look elsewhere,” she said.
U.S. agricultural businesses are already seeing Canadian and Mexican customers diversifying their purchases, she said.
Time spent on NAFTA is also time away from forging new trade relations with other countries, and trade agreements are moving forward without the U.S., she said.
Exports are vital to economic development and profitability, and access to markets is key, said Floyd Gaibler, director of trade policy for the U.S. Grains Council and former USDA deputy undersecretary for farm and foreign agricultural services.
“NAFTA is exhibit A of the benefits to U.S. agriculture and the U.S. economy at large,” representing nearly $1.3 trillion in total, he said.
The U.S. exported more than $20 billion in agricultural products to Canada and nearly $18 billion to Mexico in 2016, according to USDA.
It’s vital to maintain for most of U.S. agriculture NAFTA’s reciprocal, duty-free market access, he said. The downstream impact of withdrawal would be a loss of up to $13 billion to the farm sector, Gaibler said.
“This negotiation is too important to fail, and we need to continually and collectively reinforce the importance of doing no harm and modernizing the agreement,” he said.