U.S., Mexican, Canadian ag leaders discuss trade relations

Kim de Bourbon
Canada’s Minister of Agriculture Lawrence MacAulay, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and Mexico’s Secretary of Agriculture Victor Villalobos discuss tariffs at this morning’s 2019 USDA Agricultural Outlook Forum. (Charles E. de Bourbon/The Hagstrom Report)

ARLINGTON, Va. — In the presence of his Mexican and Canadian counterparts at the 2019 USDA Agricultural Outlook Forum this morning, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue put a cheery face on trade relations among the three nations, referring to them as a “neighborhood.”

Yet in remarks to reporters after the keynote presentation, Perdue acknowledged that U.S. tariffs on steel and aluminum imports need to be removed for a new North American trade agreement to work.

“The expectation among the agricultural sectors in all three countries was that once an agreement was reached on the U.S.-Mexico-Canada agreement, the [Section] 232 tariffs on steel and aluminum would be removed,” Perdue said. He noted that agricultural producers have taken a “double whammy” with the tariffs, with the cost of machinery and materials they need going up while the price of what they produce has been going down.

The three countries signed the agreement, which would replace the existing North American Free Trade Agreement, late last year, but it has yet to be approved by each nation’s legislators.

“The expectation among the agricultural sectors in all three countries was that once an agreement was reached on the U.S.-Mexico-Canada agreement, the (Section) 232 tariffs on steel and aluminum would be removed.” Sonny Perdue, U.S. agriculture secretary

“We need steel and aluminum tariffs off,” said Canada’s Minister of Agriculture Lawrence MacAulay during a question-and-answer period following the keynote presentation, which also featured remarks by Mexico’s Secretary of Agriculture Victor Villalobos.

Perdue acknowledged that President Donald Trump may not agree. “He has a different opinion on the benefit of tariffs at this point in time,” noting that Trump has to look out for the whole of the national economy, not just agriculture.

Yet Perdue said, “We’re hopeful and optimistic that all 232 tariff issues can be resolved,” and that “hopefully we can have this, certainly by — I’m always optimistic — by summer.”

The three ag leaders focused many of their remarks on promoting what MacAulay called a “science-based regulatory system,” as Perdue expressed concern with what he called a “growing fear that people need to fear their food.”

“It’s challenging us as leaders in the agriculture supply chain,” he said, calling upon the crowd to fight what he called the “fear your food” movement, such as those working to block the use of genetically modified organisms (GMO) in food production.

“Biotechnology products have proven safety records,” Perdue said, noting that public misinformation leads to bad policy and unjustified regulatory hurdles. “There is still no credible evidence of harm.”

“We have the evidence to prove that it is safe,” MacAulay said, noting that if producers do not take advantage of biotechnology, “then we will not be able to feed the world.”

Villalobos agreed that it was necessary to approach agriculture in a different way than in the past. “Now it is up to us to look for ways,” he said, adding that a single policy is not enough to address the “very diverse” world of agriculture.

“The fact is, we have to push, strongly, a science-based system,” MacAulay said. “And not stop doing something just because someone thinks it is bad. It takes investment, new technology, if we want to feed the world. We have a moral obligation to do so.”

“We have to be careful not to over-regulate,” Villalobos said. “I am confident that technology will help us meet this challenge.”

The three also addressed the question of how to protect against infectious diseases such as African swine fever, which China announced this summer had broken out there.

“What we want to do is sit down and come up with something to deal with this issue, not after it comes but before it comes,” MacAulay said. “If we can isolate it, and make sure it’s done properly, it can be contained.”

“It’s like Neighborhood Watch,” Perdue said. “We have to design a program to watch out for your neighbors, with standards of protection we can agree upon, so our customers around the world know they are safe.”

–The Hagstrom Report