NAFTA talks could be good for ag, Inslee says

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CAPITAL PRESS – DON JENKINS

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said Friday that renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement could be a “springboard” for exporting more of the state’s farm products to Mexico.

Inslee spoke to reporters after meeting with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto in Mexican City. The governor said he brought up opening up access to U.S. potatoes and milk during what he called a “long and engaging meeting.”

A revised NAFTA also could increase opportunities to sell Washington products such as cheese and wine, he said.

“We think there’s a lot more opportunity for selling more ag products in Mexico,” Inslee said. “These NAFTA discussions may be a springboard to opening up doors to new products.”

Inslee went to Mexico City to join a state delegation on the last day of a four-day trade mission to Mexico. The delegation included state Department of Agriculture Director Derek Sandison and Washington Dairy Products Commission officials, as well as representatives from other industries.

Coincidentally, the delegation was in Mexico when the Trump administration formally notified Congress that it intended to renegotiate the pact with Mexico and Canada. The two-page notification from U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said the 23-year-old treaty needed to be “modernized,” but did not criticize the current agreement.

“That is a significant change from the rhetoric we heard during the campaign,” said Inslee, a critic of the Trump administration.

On Thursday, Inslee met with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Seattle. Inslee said that Trudeau and Pena Nieto agreed NAFTA could be improved. “What I heard from these two leaders was an openness to reasonable dialogue about this,” he said.

Mexico ranks as the seventh-largest export market for Washington farm goods, according to WSDA. Last year, Mexico bought $313 million worth of food and other agricultural products from the state.

While many farm groups say they’re satisfied with NAFTA, the National Potato Council estimates that exports to Mexico could roughly double to $500 million annually if Mexican importers had what the council calls “full and unrestricted access” to U.S. fresh and processed potatoes.

The council complained in a letter last month to the White House that Mexico blocks market access by “unscientific and inconsistent application” of food-safety standards.

Simply canceling NAFTA, however, would have increased tariffs on U.S. potatoes from zero to 50 to 70 percent, according to the potato council.

The dairy industry welcomed reopening NAFTA.

Industry leaders accuse Canada of blocking trade and said that they wanted to defend their market in Mexico.

Inslee said he was granted a meeting with Pena Nieto because of his defense of undocumented workers. Inslee said he also found common cause with the Mexican leader over climate change.

“No matter what happens in Washington, D.C., Mexico will have a partner in the state of Washington in fighting climate change,” he said.

Inslee’s proposals to tax carbon emissions to discourage the use of fossil fuels and increase government revenue have failed to pass the Legislature. Inslee has ordered a carbon cap through an administrative order. Business groups, including the Washington Farm Bureau, have a lawsuit pending in Thurston County Superior Court to overturn the cap.