WASHINGTON (CN) – As repeal and withdraw have become increasingly familiar approaches touted in Washington lately, lobbyists for big agriculture are already anxious about President Donald Trump’s renegotiations of the North American Free Trade Agreement next year, hoping the trade pact will be kept in place.
A six-member panel met Wednesday with the House Committee on Agriculture to discuss NAFTA. The panel included head lobbyists for agriculture industry giants the U.S. Dairy Export Council, National Cattleman’s Beef Association, U.S. Grains Council, National Oilseed Processors Association, Florida Tomato Growers Exchange and National Chicken Council.
Each lobbyist agreed that the president would be remiss to leave NAFTA negotiations altogether once they’re officially underway next year.
And while a Paris accord-style exit by Trump seems unlikely right now, the threat felt tangible to lobbyists who urged the committee to keep pushing the administration to stay in the agreement and stay in sync or ahead of competing NAFTA partners Canada and Mexico.
The Trump administration has said that it wants to renegotiate the terms of the agreement to reduce the U.S. trade deficit and improve market access in Canada and Mexico for U.S. manufacturing, agriculture and related services.
Rep. Jim Costa, D.-Calif., told the committee Wednesday that he too wants to see the terms modified but he was less than confident that the Trump administration had a firm grasp on the outcome of its own proposed positions on NAFTA.
Costa said the administration’s argument that the U.S. market share is twice as large as the combined Canada-Mexico share is worrisome. Disagreement over the market share stems from counting intra-industry trade or, countries exporting and importing similar goods from and to one another.
“Trade must be a two-way street with win-wins. NAFTA, I hope, will be modernized and renegotiated but I was frustrated to see the narrative change over the last 18 months during the campaign,” Costa said. “I don’t think it accurately reflects the successes of NAFTA, not withstanding modernizing.”
Twenty-two percent of all agricultural exports in Costa’s home state of California go to Mexico and Canada.
In 2015, the U.S. made $3.5 billion in farm trade, with Canada giving the U.S. a $1.1 billion boost.
This alone, Costa said, makes the Trump administration’s position on NAFTA as a “horrible” deal inaccurate.
“It hasn’t been ‘a disaster.’ It hasn’t been the single worst trade deal ever. It hasn’t,” he said. “We walked away from [the Trans-Pacific Partnership] and that was a mistake. It was a mistake to walk away from it on the first day without having read it or examined it for what I think was purely political purposes.”
Kendall Frazier, CEO of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, repeated Costa’s sentiment to the committee.
“It is difficult to improve duty-free unlimited access to Mexico. Even still, our message remains the same, please do no harm and do not jeopardize our access,” Frazier said.
On average, the beef industry sees Mexico and Canada as two of its top five partners, reaching nearly $1 billion in annual sales in those neighboring countries.
Kevin Borsch, on behalf of the National Chicken Council, said that 3.4 million jobs are currently tied to poultry production in the U.S. and the U.S. is the biggest exporter of soy beans and corn.
This makes tearing apart current trade terms for the sake of politicking deeply unpalatable, he said.
“Our exports are of great value not just to our industry but others who work with us, like soy and grain,” Borsch said. “NAFTA has been a godsend for us. We went from having almost no exports to Mexico and now we have more than 1 million metric tons of poultry products there. Mexico is number one and Canada is number two.”
Like Costa suggested to fellow committee members, Borsch too urged careful consideration but swift action.
Wrapping negotiations by the year’s end could signal U.S. confidence to Mexico and Canada, but that timeline could be overly optimistic.
Borsch agreed with Costa that trade should be a win-win for everyone.
“We win-you lose may make good politics, but not a good trade deal,” he said.