Heitkamp stresses NAFTA renegotiation priorities to Lighthizer

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WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp has written a letter asking new U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer to keep the needs of North Dakota's farmers and ranchers in mind as the country moves forward in renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement.

The Senate late last week confirmed Lighthizer to the post of trade representative. Lighthizer served as a deputy trade representative in the Reagan administration and was confirmed on an 82-14 vote.

President Donald Trump in April announced he was planning to pull out of NAFTA, though he hours later changed his mind in favor of renegotiating the agreement, citing conversations with Mexican and Canadian leaders. Trump railed against NAFTA on the campaign trail, blaming the 1993 agreement among the U.S., Canada and Mexico for the loss of U.S. manufacturing jobs. However, U.S. agriculture generally has benefited from NAFTA, and ag groups have urged Trump not to pull out of it.

In Heitkamp's letter, dated May 15, she wrote that she supports a "reasonable renegotiation" of NAFTA but she stressed its overall importance for North Dakota producers.

North Dakota, she pointed out, is the ninth largest agriculture exporting state, and almost a quarter of North Dakotans either are farmers or ranchers or work in farm-related jobs.

"Therefore your top priority in renegotiating NAFTA must be to do no harm," Heitkamp wrote. "I will oppose ratification of any agreement which diminishes North Dakota's farmers' and ranchers' market access to Canada and Mexico."

Heitkamp did, however, point out three areas in which she feels NAFTA could be modernized to take into account some concerns: Canadian grain grading standards, Mexican sugar dumping and country of origin labeling of meat.

On the Canadian grain grading standards, Heitkamp pointed out the problems U.S. farmers have in trying to sell their grain into Canada. Under the Canadian standards, U.S. grain cannot be rated as highly as Canadian grain. Canadian prices have been higher than U.S. prices in recent years, but farmers near the border have not been able to make those premiums due to the grading issues. Canadian wheat, however, is treated equally with U.S. wheat at U.S. elevators.

"This type of system prohibits U.S. producers from receiving a fair price for their grain, regardless of its intrinsic qualities," Heitkamp wrote. "Conversely, producers from Canada may deliver to a U.S. grain elevator and receive top grade for their wheat if its qualities meet U.S. official standards."

Heitkamp touched on how fully liberalized sugar trade between the U.S. and Mexico has hurt North Dakota farmers and workers in the sugar industry. Mexico has sent too much sugar into the U.S., depressing prices for U.S. producers.

"The Department of Commerce and U.S. International Trade Commission found Mexican dumping and subsidies to be injuring U.S. sugar farmers and producers in 2015, and the United States is actively working to get suspension agreements with Mexico renegotiated or antidumping or countervailing duties imposed to prevent further injury to our domestic industry quickly," she wrote.

Heitkamp also pointed out the desire for a "workable solution for country of origin labeling of meat in the United States." Consumers, she said, want to know where their meat came from, and negotiations to set up a voluntary labeling system ran afoul of the World Trade Organization.

She said the recent scandals involving Brazilian meat that was "soiled and contaminated" illustrated the need for country of origin labeling. In that case, Brazilian federal police in March unveiled an investigation into alleged payments to government health officials by meat processing companies to forego inspections and cover up health violations.

"Our ranchers produce the best beef in the world, and they should not be negatively affected by consumer confusion about the sources of their meat," Heitkamp wrote.