NAFTA frictions start to heat up

There was mounting friction during the third round of NAFTA negotiations that concuded last week but not on the agriculture file, says an observer.

“By and large agriculture hasn’t been the focus of significant changes in NAFTA because it’s working well,” said Brian Innes, president of the Canadian Agri-Food Trade Alliance.

The main change the Canadian government is seeking for agriculture as negotiations for a modernized North American Free Trade Agreement continue is regulatory alignment with Mexico and the United States. There has been progress on that front because the U.S. wants the same thing.

For beef that means eliminating dual inspections of meat at the border. For grain it means aligning maximum residue limits and the approval process for new pesticides. And for food safety, the priority is to establish a NAFTA-wide risk assessment agency.

Innes said the starting point for discussions surrounding the regulation of biotechnology and emerging technologies such as gene editing is what was agreed to in the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement.

“Industry has been asking governments to go further than what was agreed to in the TPP because the three governments involved in NAFTA are more progressive and advanced in new breeding techniques and biotech regulations than the other nine countries that were involved in TPP,” he said.

Industry would like to see co-operation in establishing low-level presence regulations and on how to deal with emerging technologies.

Those discussions become complicated because multiple agencies in the U.S. must first agree and get on the same page.

There are some contentious issues in the agriculture chapter of the agreement, such as U.S. objections to Canada’s supply management industry and how it conducts grain grading but it is nothing compared to some other issues.

“We’ve seen the heat turned up because the U.S. has put forward unreasonable proposals,” said Innes. “Things got significantly more difficult this week.”

For the first time in the negotiations, the U.S. outlined the major changes it wants for the automotive, manufacturing, textile and steel portions of the agreement.

“It’s more complicated than just tweaking a paragraph here or there,” he said.

It is causing friction and tension around the negotiating table, said Innes.

But for the most part, discussions are still amicable, said Cam Dahl, president of Cereals Canada.

“The negotiating atmosphere is very good and co-operative. Nobody has walked away from the table. Nobody has left a meeting in anger,” he said.

Dahl agreed with Innes that some progress has been made on the agriculture chapter, which is one of 27 in the agreement.

“Nothing is agreed to until everything is agreed to, so it’s difficult to say things have been finalized,” he said.

“But there is significant agreement around things like moving towards greater synchronicity on regulations around things like pesticide approval.”

The next round of negotiations takes place Oct. 11–15 in Washington, D.C.

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