On a day the Commerce Department announced the U.S. trade deficit rose to its highest level in a year during the first quarter, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue set the table for NAFTA renegotiations, hosting the agricultural ministers of Canada and Mexico in Savannah for their first trilateral talks on the issue.
In a joint statement issued Tuesday, Perdue and his North American counterparts — Canadian Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food Lawrence MacAulay and Jose Calzada, Mexican secretary of Agriculture, Livestock, Rural Development, Fisheries and Food — agreed the 23-year-old agreement has produced more positives for agriculture interests than negatives.
“The North American Free Trade Agreement has greatly helped our respective agricultural sectors as well as our consumers, who have benefited from an ever-growing variety of safe, affordable food products all year around,” the three said.
“While even the best trading partnerships face challenges from time to time, our agricultural differences are relatively few in the context of the $85 billion in agricultural trade that flows between our three nations each year.”
Both MacAulay and Calzada praised Perdue, the former Georgia governor, for initiating the “get-to-know-you” meeting before the three countries begin working in earnest to hammer out differences on agricultural trade.
“Every year, $85 billion in agricultural trade flows between our three countries,” MacAulay said. “NAFTA has opened the door and created growth that is helping farmers boost their bottom lines and giving consumers an abundant supply of food year-round, from Georgia peaches to Mexican avocados.
“Trade is, and will continue to be, the engine of growth and prosperity for our nations.”
Perdue agreed, adding the trio began preliminary discussions on the agricultural aspects of NAFTA Tuesday morning before heading over to the Port of Savannah for a tour and press conference.
“We three are aligned in that NAFTA has been relatively good for the ag sectors of all three countries,” he said. “The purpose of this meeting is not heavy negotiations on NAFTA — that will be done by our trade negotiators. Rather, it’s important for all three countries that we develop personal relationships of trust and candor with one another as we discuss the issues before us on NAFTA renegotiations.”
Calzada stressed the importance of meeting face-to-face in developing a basis of trust on which to build candid discussions.
“This is what Sonny has done,” he said. “He has brought us face-to-face, to shake hands, to bring our wives and enjoy nice dinners in a relaxed atmosphere that makes it easier to talk about our issues as friends.
“Many Mexican producers have had concerns in the last months. After all, we trade $160 million in agricultural products with the U.S. every day.
“That we are here, presenting a single face to North America, has already made a difference. And it will make a difference when we begin to take on the differences we must resolve.”
While none of the ministers were ready to identify what Perdue called “irritants” at Tuesday’s gathering, they no doubt include such issues as Mexico’s recent agreement to limit its sugar exports to the U.S. and Canada’s trade barriers to dairy and wheat, a topic of discussion between Perdue and MacAulay in Toronto earlier this month.
While there will be some sticky issues within the agricultural segment, all three ministers agreed the advantages have far outweighed the concerns. That doesn’t mean, however, tweaks aren’t necessary, especially as the agricultural landscape has evolved in the years since NAFTA was first enacted.
“Over the years, the United States, Mexico and Canada have worked collaboratively to protect plant and animal health, conduct joint research and share best practices, helping us to eradicate several pests and diseases from the region, and differentiating us from the rest of the world,” the three said in a joint statement.
“Our three countries remain committed to continued collaboration to ensure a safe and reliable regional supply chain that makes the North American agriculture sector more competitive.”
Perdue, whose data-based advice has reportedly helped soften President Donald Trump’s approach to NAFTA, said he and his counterparts in Canada and Mexico hoped negotiations would get underway “sooner rather than later.”
Following the port tour, World Trade Center Savannah hosted a luncheon for the three with area business leaders at the Savannah International Trade & Convention Center. The group wrapped up the day with a Vidalia farm tour and special “Georgia Fresh” supper.