Commentary: Why Florida should reconsider its objections to NAFTA

Russ Jones, BTA chairman for 2016-2017, makes case for free trade in the produce sector in this commentary in The Austin American-Statesman:

 

 

For an object lesson in the power of free trade, a visit to your local grocery store delivers the starkest example of what happens when we reduce barriers between sellers and consumers.

Thanks to free and open trade, the concept of produce not being “in season” has faded into shoppers’ memories, along with cashiers manually punching prices into a cash register.

Unfortunately, some parochial interests representing Florida agriculture would have us turn back the clock.

Because of trade and increasingly sophisticated supply chains, when the winter chill hits the United States, we can count on produce imports from Mexico and Latin America to fill our store shelves with a breadth of variety and freshness that couldn’t have been predicted just a few decades ago. The North American Free Trade Agreement’s contribution to this broader consumer choice is significant. No longer must shoppers rely solely on homegrown products.

NAFTA’s impact can be seen in places all along the US-Mexico border, in communities like Nogales, Arizona, and Pharr, Texas.

Nogales was always a produce trade hot spot, but it was known mostly for the importation of tomatoes during a few winter months. Nearly 25 years since NAFTA’s implementation, the remodeled and expanded Mariposa port of entry there has become a year-round fruit and vegetable-importing powerhouse, importing $2.5 billion worth of produce each year and creating nearly 3,000 jobs in warehouses, brokerages and freight forwarders.

Pharr is no longer a sleepy outpost in the Rio Grande Valley. The port has seen the importation of produce skyrocket, dramatically cutting shipping costs to the U.S. Midwest and East Coast, putting downward pressure on families’ grocery bills and contributing to the one in seven Texas jobs that are connected to agriculture.

As the American consumer has sought a diet richer in fruits and vegetables, the three-nation NAFTA has met consumer demand and kept prices affordable in a way that relying solely on domestic production simply couldn’t.

Though NAFTA has proven itself essential to economic prosperity, those of us who are stalwart trade advocates do not argue simply for the maintenance of the status quo. A nearly 25-year-old agreement ought to be updated to reflect the major changes the North American economy has experienced since NAFTA’s adoption.

Renegotiation of NAFTA should be conducted with one principle at the center of the conversation: Do no harm. If special interests in the U.S., Canada, or Mexico view the reopening of the agreement as a chance to settle scores or institute new protectionist policies, then the renegotiation will create self-inflicted economic harm.

That is why policymakers should resist strongly the desire of Florida growers to use the NAFTA renegotiation to revert to the days of protectionism, thereby depriving consumers the choices they want, driving prices upward, and denying Americans millions of good paying jobs.

Dismantling a supply chain that can quickly get a Mexican-grown tomato from the field onto the dinner table affordably — while maintaining its flavor and freshness — would be a major step backward for a trade environment that has benefited all three countries and created jobs across the continent. We should seek to grow – not weaken – trade ties that have proven a marvel of efficiency that American industries, working together, have perfected.

Even when natural calamities strike, like the hurricanes that ravaged Florida agriculture, the American consumer can rest easy knowing we have other reliable sources our families can count on to provide the food supplies we need. This is not the time to strangle our food supply chain out of a parochial desire to give one region a leg up over another.

We want the agreement’s renegotiation to build on its successes. Expansion, not contraction. Modernization, not regression. We welcome Florida’s producers to join us in breaking down even more barriers, creating new access for Florida-grown produce around the globe. Erecting new barriers will hurt us all.

Jones is head of R.L Jones Customs Brokers and is chairman of the Border Trade Alliance.