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Murky NAFTA talks leave farmers from all 3 nations in the dark


After the announcement on Monday that President Trump and Mexican President Peña Nieto had reached some partial, preliminary deal on the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Canada stepped back in for a frenzied round of negotiation.

It is expected that President Trump will notify Congress Friday of his intent to sign a new NAFTA, with or without Canada.

{mosads}Little is known about the actual content of any deal. Statements issued so far by U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer focus primarily on changes on regional content and other rules of interest to auto workers, alongside many of the worst elements from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which Trump rejected last year after congressional and public opposition.


The running theme in civil society and legislator reactions is that the devil is in the details. And, from the administration, that farmers have somehow won in this slippery deal.

So much of what’s publicly available on the deal is based on partial information, resulting from the least transparent negotiations in decades. There are conflicting ideas about how much progress has been made (especially on labor rights), what might happen if Canada doesn’t agree and how Congress would be involved in ratifying or rejecting a new deal.

It seems clear that for Canada, giving in to Trump’s bullying would mean crippling or abandoning its dairy supply management program. This successful program is one attempt to balance supply and demand to help farmers and consumers, with little reliance on exports or taxpayer subsidies.

It works, in part, because dairy is sheltered from imports by high tariffs. In the U.S., farmers, like steel workers, are hurt by immense, unmanaged overproduction exported to global markets, driving prices down to unsustainable levels.

In an interview on Fox News, White House National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow claimed that the administration would like to include Canada, but that a deal has “got to the include the dairy farm stuff, you know? There’s a word that Canada has trouble with. It’s M-I-L-K. Milk.”

In contrast, family farm groups in the U.S., notably the National Family Farm Coalition, Rural Coalition and the National Farmers Union, have spoken on the need to overhaul domestic dairy policy that relies on overproduction to compensate for low prices, and, rather than attacking Canada’s program, to learn from it.

Canada will also be rightfully pressed to ease its defense of Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS), which gives companies the right to sue governments over laws that undermine their expected profits.

Civil society groups in all three countries have demanded the removal of ISDS from NAFTA. The fact sheets the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) released contain no information on the issue.

According to reports, ISDS commitments between Mexico and the U.S. would remain unchanged for key sectors, including oil, gas and telecommunications. The terms of ISDS may have changed for other sectors, but the real details of this unnecessary and undemocratic mechanism are still unknown.

Mexico seems to have surrendered many of the tools it would need to implement agricultural reforms to restore local production of basic grains and other foods.

This is one of the highlights of President-elect Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador’s plans but would be undermined and potentially blocked by commitments USTR says Mexico has agreed to: maintaining zero tariffs in agriculture and refraining from using authority under World Trade Organization rules to establish temporary safeguards to promote food security, rural livelihoods and sustainability.

In the end, those are the goals farmers in all three countries have been demanding: enhancing local production at fair prices; ensuring respect for human rights, including farmworkers’ rights; the right to know what’s in our food and where it’s produced; and a process that is transparent and legitimate.

All of these require changes to farm and trade policy, especially in the U.S., where they are closely intertwined, and a rebalancing of NAFTA that puts people — not transnational corporations — at the heart of the agreement.

Trade agreements have many flaws, but they are supposed to set the rules of commerce among nations. So far, those agreements have been overwhelmingly skewed to corporate interests, generating massive opposition among progressive legislators and civil societies.

But the content of those deals is a choice. Other choices are possible. The point of renegotiating this massive, complicated trade deal was to improve what many agree has been a failure.

What we’ve seen so far is more devil than details. But it looks like decisions have been to choose TPP, to choose an undemocratic negotiating process and to charge ahead with an uncertain approval process. The three countries should take the time to get it right.

Karen Hansen-Kuhn is the director of trade and global governance at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy,research and advocacy organization that promotes sustainable food, farm and trade systems.

Tags Agricultural subsidies Donald Trump Economy of North America Free trade agreements of Canada International relations International trade Investor-state dispute settlement North American Free Trade Agreement Robert Lighthizer Trade blocs Trans-Pacific Partnership

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