YAKIMA, Wash. — Washington state exports close to $500 million worth of apples, pears and cherries annually to Mexico and Canada and anything that impedes that is a very big concern, says Mark Powers, president of the Northwest Horticultural Council in Yakima.

Powers is the Northwest tree fruit industry’s point person on North American Free Trade Agreement renegotiations. He’s attended the third and fourth rounds and soon will go to the fifth round in Mexico.

“If something changes that affects our ability to send the volume or affects our profitability, that has serious impacts to our economy and growers here in Washington,” Powers said. “Any changes that makes our exports more difficult, we oppose.”

The greatest worry so far for tree fruit and some other agricultural commodities is the U.S. Trade Representative’s stated objective of “a separate domestic industry provision for perishable and seasonable products.”

That objective has been set at the behest of Florida tomato growers — and supported by some berry, melon and pepper producers — who say Florida tomato growers have been going out of business because Mexico sells tomatoes in the U.S. at artificially low prices.

The issue comes down to fundamental fairness says the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association.

Under current rules, U.S. producers can only bring an anti-dumping violation case against Mexican or Canadian imports if they represent 51 percent of their industry and can show a year-long impact of imports, Powers said.

Definitions of seasonal and perishable come into play and changes that would allow regional dumping claims could be used against Northwest tree fruit or other U.S. commodities by grower groups in Mexico and Canada, he said.

“It’s an import-export issue. Those who don’t export are trying to protect themselves in U.S. markets and U.S. producers who do export are trying to make sure that whatever is done doesn’t hurt our exports,” Powers said.

There’s a lot of concern across the U.S. heartland as corn and meat are the main exports to Mexico, he said.

Mexico has slapped tariffs on U.S. apples several times for alleged dumping since NAFTA was implemented in 1994. The last one involved temporary tariffs that were lifted in June of 2016. Mexico determined Washington apples did not damage the Mexican apple industry. That outcome was partly due to goodwill between the two nations as politically the Mexican government moved against its own growers, Powers said.

There has been hope in the Washington tree fruit industry that renegotiating NAFTA could lessen the ability of Mexico to instigate dumping cases.

Powers said he’s working to ensure duty-free access for tree fruit into Canada and Mexico is not jeopardized, that fruit can be shipped through borders easily and that phytosanitary rules remain to protect against any “pest or disease attack on our plant resources.”

Powers is on the U.S. Trade Representative’s Agricultural Technical Advisory Committee on Trade for Fruits and Vegetables. It’s one of several advisory committees whose members have security clearance to talk to and be briefed by negotiators.

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