Gregg Doud, President Trump’s nominee for chief agriculture trade negotiator, won Senate Finance Committee approval on Tuesday and is likely to be approved by the full Senate.
But Doud faces a daunting task in trying to stop the destruction of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which overall has led to a massive increase in U.S. exports to Mexico and the creation of integrated supply chains in many sectors.
Doud, who grew up on a farm in Kansas, is the president of the Commodity Markets Council and has worked for the Senate Agriculture Committee, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, and U.S. Wheat Associates. Doud has a reputation as a free trader, and at his confirmation hearing, he said, “We will not go backwards … on my watch.”
But in the absence of a politically appointed chief agriculture negotiator, Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer has already put forward proposals in NAFTA that have upset Mexico and Canada.
At the request of Florida fruit and vegetable growers, Lighthizer has proposed using trade-remedy laws to address surges of imports from Mexico that come in during the season when Florida produces tomatoes. Lighthizer advanced this proposal even though the United Fresh Produce Association, which represents fruit and vegetable growers nationally, was opposed to it.
The Mexican government has said the proposal is unacceptable because it would disrupt Mexican produce exports to the United States. Bosco de la Vega, president of Consejo Nacional Agropecuario, the largest Mexican agricultural organization, said at a recent Washington news conference that the U.S. demand that its “seasonal products”—such as tomatoes, strawberries, and bell peppers grown in Florida—be given a special status is “so serious” that it could put the entire agreement in jeopardy.
“If NAFTA is overturned for agriculture, U.S. farmers could face the kind of high tariffs that prevailed before the agreement,” de la Vega added.
The U.S. feed-grains industry has expressed alarm that Mexico might retaliate by reducing imports of their products. The Corn Refiners Association has noted that 75 percent of high-fructose corn-syrup exports go to Mexico. There are also concerns that Mexican apple growers would make the seasonal case against U.S. apple imports from the Pacific Northwest.
At the request of the U.S. dairy industry, Lighthizer has put forward proposals demanding that Canada end its system of supply management in dairy, which has kept out U.S. dairy products.
Canadian negotiators have made defense of dairy-supply management a matter of national pride.
At his confirmation hearing, Doud said he has “not been briefed” on the details of “perishable product” negotiations. On the issue of Canadian dairy access, Doud said “there are things we can upgrade” about NAFTA.
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has said the first obligation on NAFTA should be to “do no harm,” and he convinced Trump not to withdraw from NAFTA by showing him a map of farm states that export to Mexico. But Lighthizer’s approach has been to try to take up complaints about NAFTA in line with the president’s thinking that the trade agreement has been a terrible failure.
Doud will face these internal battles, but he will also have to deal with the fact that American agriculture is really split on NAFTA.
Former Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Richard Lugar and former Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus are chairing a group called Farmers for Free Trade. The American Farm Bureau Federation joined that group, but Farm Bureau policy also states that the group wants the problems in NAFTA addressed.
“Our position remains to do no harm to the gains agriculture has achieved through NAFTA,” a Farm Bureau spokesman said. But, he added, “Our grassroots policy supports a trade resolution process that takes into account perishability, seasonality, and regional production.”
Free-trade advocates and Doud are unlikely to get any help from Democrats on NAFTA.
The National Farmers Union, the most Democratic-leaning farm group, opposed NAFTA when Congress approved it 23 years ago. Barbara Patterson, NFU’s trade lobbyist, acknowledged last week that U.S. farmers export a lot to Mexico and said the negotiations need to be handled “delicately.” She also said that NFU is sympathetic to regional growers on seasonality but has no official policy on the subject.
NFU philosophically likes supply management and does not believe the Canadian dairy production is the cause of the U.S. dairy industry’s troubles, Patterson said.
Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg and Public Citizen’s Lori Wallach released a poll showing voters are worried about the safety of food imports from Mexico. They said Democratic lawmakers who previously were critics have been too quiet and should highlight NAFTA concerns in an attempt to make the agreement “better.”
Amid those competing pressures, Doud’s job may be the toughest any U.S. ag-trade negotiator has ever had.