NAFTA talks have U.S. farmers on pins and needles

Producers worry U.S. President Donald Trump may eventually pull out of the deal if he’s not satisfied with negotiations

Maria Zieba knows when U.S. President Donald Trump has tweeted about the North American Free Trade Agreement.

For hours after the tweet, Zieba’s cellphone doesn’t stop beeping.

“Every time there is a tweet or some sort of article on NAFTA, my (email) inbox gets inundated,” said Zieba, director of international affairs with the National Pork Producers Council in Washington, D.C.

“And I get hundreds of text messages from producers saying, ‘what’s going on, Maria?’ ”

Zieba and many other people in Washington are trying to find out “what’s going on” when it comes to NAFTA.

They are confused because the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and nearly every agricultural association in the United States supports NAFTA, even as the Trump administration seems determined to kill the deal.

“Our producers are really concerned,” Zeiba said.

“They really want us to be involved and active (on NAFTA).”

Representatives of Canada, Mexico and the U.S. met in Mexico City earlier this month for the latest round of NAFTA re-negotiations.

The three countries began formal talks to update and modernize NAFTA in August after Trump promised to rip up or renegotiate the deal during his 2016 campaign.

Analysts are concerned the U.S. is on track to terminate NAFTA because American negotiators have put forward proposals that are untenable for Canada and Mexico, such as changing rules of origin around automobile manufacturing so that half of all content comes from the U.S. and eliminating a mechanism to resolve disputes.

There was minimal progress in Mexico City to push a deal forward, and hog farmers in the U.S. are getting worried, Zieba said.

They are concerned because 40 percent of U.S. pork exports go to Canada and Mexico.

“They are really scared about withdrawal,” she said.

“They’ve looked at the numbers and (it’s) $12.40 per pig lost if we withdraw from the NAFTA market. It’s going to put a lot of people out of business.”

Pork producers and many other American farmers are worried that if NAFTA falls apart, competitors will step in and seize their two best markets for exports.

In mid-November, before the negotiations in Mexico City, 168 agri-food groups and businesses sent a letter to all 50 U.S. governors. The letter, signed by Fortune 500 companies such as CHS, Cargill and John Deere, reminded the governors of the importance of NAFTA and the consequences of a U.S. withdrawal.

“(It) would fuel additional uncertainty among our North American trading partners, creating a sense of urgency to explore non-U.S. origin sources of supply,” the letter said.

“Contracts would be renegotiated or cancelled, sales would be delayed or lost altogether, able foreign competitors would rush to seize our export markets, and litigation would abound even before withdrawal took effect.”

The letter even contained estimates of economic impacts, assuming the U.S. pulls out of NAFTA.

“(The result would be) a net loss of at least 50,000 jobs in the U.S. food and agriculture industry and a drop in GDP of $13 billion from the farm sector alone,” it said.

U.S. farmers and agricultural groups may be getting more and more frustrated with Trump’s position on NAFTA, but so far they haven’t marched through the streets of Washington.

Zieba said that’s unlikely to happen — for now.

The sector wants the NAFTA renegotiation to succeed and is willing to give the administration a chance to get it right.

“We want to give room to our negotiators,” she said.

“(But) if there is a complete breakdown I think you will see more movement from our side.”

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