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Published May 27, 2014, 10:07 AM

No winner in sugar trade war

I talked once with a guy, an American, shortly after he returned from vacation in Mexico. He told of how he’d wanted to eat “authentic” Mexican food, not “tourist” food. So he walked past two restaurants filled with tourists eating fried chicken; no “tourist” food for him. Finally, he found a restaurant serving local residents and ate “authentic” food with them. “Well, what did you have?” I asked. He hesitated an instant (he’d clearly told the story before; his timing was perfect) and said, “Fried chicken.”

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

I talked once with a guy, an American, shortly after he returned from vacation in Mexico. He told of how he’d wanted to eat “authentic” Mexican food, not “tourist” food. So he walked past two restaurants filled with tourists eating fried chicken; no “tourist” food for him. Finally, he found a restaurant serving local residents and ate “authentic” food with them. “Well, what did you have?” I asked. He hesitated an instant (he’d clearly told the story before; his timing was perfect) and said, “Fried chicken.”

Many Americans, I suppose, have preconceptions about Mexico. Sometimes those ideas are accurate. Sometimes, as with the American tourist who made an assumption about authentic food, they’re not.

I try to avoid making assumptions about Mexico. My firsthand knowledge of the country consists of two hours in a border town geared to U.S. tourists.

But I write occasionally about Mexico’s influence on U.S. agriculture. I’ve covered restrictions on U.S. dry bean exports to Mexico, longstanding efforts to expand access of U.S. potatoes to Mexican consumers and, most recently, the U.S. sugar industry’s complaint that Mexico isn’t playing fair with its sugar imports to the U.S.

The U.S. International Trade Commission has ruled there’s good reason to think the U.S. sugar industry’s complaint is valid. Mexican officials, for their part, deny they’re doing anything wrong.

Who’s right? My guess, and it’s nothing more, is the ITC is right. In any case, the official U.S. investigation continues.

Benefits of free trade

But this much I do know:

The U.S. and Mexico both win from free and open trade between the two countries.

Mexico is the third-largest market for U.S. ag exports. It’s the largest U.S. market for beef, dairy, swine, turkey, rice, apples, soymeal, sorghum, animal fats and dry beans.

The U.S., in turn, is the largest market for Mexican ag exports.

Thanks, at least in part, to approval of the North American Free Trade Agreement, U.S. ag exports to Mexico soared from $4.2 billion in 1994 to $18.9 billion in 2012. In the same period, Mexican ag exports to the U.S. rose from $2.8 billion to $16.3 billion, according to the website of the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City.

U.S. officials, including Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack, have expressed concern that the sugar issue could escalate into a broader trade war, one that would affect other commodities, as well.

That’s why U.S. agricultural groups are following the sugar dispute. They realize there are broader implications.

The U.S. potato industry is watching particularly closely. It’s worked for many years to win broader access to the Mexican market, and the Mexican government has just agreed to let that happen. A U.S.-Mexican trade war would threaten that progress. A trade war would threaten a lot of mutually beneficial trade between two neighbors that, whatever their differences, are allies.

We’re still a long way from a trade war. Let’s hope this is as close as we come.

The U.S. sugar industry says it’s standing up for itself and for what’s right. Hard to argue with that.

Just remember that farmers who don’t raise sugar also have a stake in the dispute. That’s not a preconception or assumption. It’s a cold, hard fact.

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