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NAFTA, whatever its shortcomings, has strengthened area agriculture

It's easy and often politically expedient to criticize the North American Free Trade Agreement, which links the United States, Canada and Mexico. President Donald Trump did it often during his ultimately successful campaign, and now his administration is working to make sweeping changes to NAFTA. He's even threatened to withdraw the U.S. from the agreement.

That worries us. It worries most Upper Midwest farmers and ranchers, too, and rightly so. NAFTA, whatever its shortcomings, has strengthened area agriculture overall.

Here's how a 2015 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture summarizes NAFTA, which went into force in 1994:

NAFTA progressively eliminated almost all tariff and quota barriers governing intraregional trade among the three member countries. The agreement also facilitates cross-border investment, requires that sanitary and phytosanitary standards for trade be scientifically based, and expands cooperation on environment and labor issues.

Integration of North America's agricultural markets, as fostered by NAFTA, offers many tangible benefits. In general, it enables agricultural producers and consumers in the region to benefit more fully from their relative strengths and to respond more efficiently to changing economic conditions.

Upper Midwest farmers are among the biggest beneficiaries. These are two examples of many:

• Mexico accounts for about a quarter of U.S. edible bean exports. North Dakota leads the nation in production of the crop. Minnesota ranks in the top four or five states, while the crop's popularity is growing among Montana farmers.

• Beer is Mexico's leading ag export to the United States. Last year, the U.S. imported $1.9 billion of Mexican beer — a number that continues to grow. Mexican beer companies, in turn, get the majority of their barley from the United States. Over the past 10 marketing years, Mexico has bought 31.2 million bushels of U.S. barley valued at $220 million. Montana and North Dakota, along with Idaho, dominate U.S. barley production.

It's not just agriculture that benefits from NAFTA. For instance, major automakers, suppliers and auto dealers have launched a new coalition urging Trump not to withdraw from the agreement.

We won't argue with those who say the agreement should be updated. Much of the ongoing negotiations involve areas such as digital trade and telecommunications, which have evolved since the agreement was approved. Times change, and the specifics of trade agreements need to change with them.

Nor will we argue with those, including many in the sugar beet and dairy industries, who complain that NAFTA isn't perfect. No agreement among countries ever is.

We're sure of this: NAFTA has made North America a better, more prosperous place. It's made Upper Midwest agriculture better and more prosperous, too.

We urge President Trump and his advisors to listen carefully to the agriculturalists and others who support NAFTA. They offer good and compelling arguments for why our country needs to remain in the agreement.