The re-negotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between the U.S., Mexico and Canada began on August 16, and there is much at stake for farmers and rural communities in all three countries.
Despite promised gains for farmers, NAFTA’s benefits over the last 23 years have gone primarily to multinational agribusiness firms. NAFTA is about much more than trade. It set rules on investment, farm exports, food safety, access to seeds, and markets. NAFTA, combined with the formation of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the 1996 Farm Bill, led the charge to greater consolidation among agribusiness firms, the loss of many small and mid-sized farms and independent ranchers, the rapid growth of confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and further corporate control of animal production through often unfair, restrictive contracts with producers. The Trump administration’s negotiating objectives reflect relatively small tweaks to NAFTA, while adopting deregulatory elements of the defeated Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
Family farm groups have called for the existing NAFTA to be scrapped and propose a fundamentally new agreement with a goal of improving the lives of family farmers and rural communities in all three countries.
What is NAFTA?
The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was agreed to by the U.S., Mexico and Canada in 1992, ratified by the U.S. Congress in 1993, and became enforceable in 1994. The Agreement has 22 chapters, grouped into eight sections.1 Those sections cover trade rules on a variety of goods, including textiles, agriculture and food safety, and energy; technical standards for traded goods; government procurement; protection for investors and trade in services; intellectual property; notification of new laws and how to handle trade disputes.
NAFTA was the first of its kind in several ways: the first trade agreement among countries at very different levels of economic development; the first to include controversial private arbitration panels that allow foreign corporations to sue governments to challenge actions that impede their potential future profits; and the first trade agreement to include side agreements on labor and environment. It was the template for the U.S.-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement, and the defeated Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), among others, as well as dozens of other agreements negotiated by Canada and Mexico. Each of the trade deals that followed included additional elements that strengthened corporations’ ability to move production and investments in all participating countries.
What promises were made to farmers?
During the NAFTA debate in the early 1990s, U.S. farmers and ranchers were promised that they would export their way to prosperity but that didn’t happen. A U.S. Department of Agriculture fact sheet at the time pledged that NAFTA would “boost incomes in Mexico and increase demand for a greater volume and variety of food and feed products” from U.S. farmers.2 The USDA fact sheet vowed that U.S. farmers would gain from “higher agricultural export prices” among other benefits. An International Trade Commission analysis advising Congress in 1993 downplayed the impact NAFTA would have on agriculture, predicting only “a minimal effect on overall U.S. agricultural production and employment,” aside from some increases in grain and meat exports, and a slight increase in fruit and vegetable imports.3 The same ITC report predicted that U.S. Midwest soy and corn farmers would benefit from increased exports to Mexico.
The General Accounting Office (now Government Accountability Office) concluded that NAFTA would “reduce unauthorized Mexican migration to the United States in the long run…”4 President Bill Clinton made a similar argument at the time stating: “By raising the incomes of Mexicans, which this (NAFTA) will do, they’ll be able to buy more of our products and there will be much less pressure on them to come to this country in the form of illegal immigration.”5 Conservative think tanks like the Peterson Institute for International Economics joined in the NAFTA cheerleading through opinion pieces in the media that exclaimed “Everybody Wins,” and predicted strong long-term growth in Mexico’s per capita income with associated declines in immigration to the U.S.6
These false promises, supported by a compliant media, gave Congressional backers the fuel they needed to narrowly pass NAFTA in 1993. Whether economic gains for farmers or reduced migration from Mexico, NAFTA’s promises of prosperity have proven to be empty ones.
What parts of NAFTA relate to food and agriculture?
Phasing out of tariffs
NAFTA’s Chapter 3 on National Treatment and Market Access set a schedule to phase out tariffs on most agricultural goods traded among the three countries, finally coming into full force in 2008. Tariffs on some goods, such as imports of corn and soybeans to Mexico, were phased out over 15 years—although Mexico accelerated that timetable under pressure from the U.S.7 (Previously, Mexico had charged an average tariff of 11 percent on imports of agricultural goods.) U.S. agricultural tariffs were for the most part already low. Many Mexican farm goods entered the U.S. duty-free prior to NAFTA under the Generalized System of Preferences, which gives tariff preferences to developing countries. Tariffs on U.S.-Canada trade for most agricultural goods had already been eliminated under the U.S.-Canada Free Trade Agreement, which formally came into force in 1989.8
Some exceptions to the free flow of agricultural goods were established under NAFTA. Canada retained the right to maintain its dairy, poultry and egg supply management programs, which support fair prices for Canadian producers and consumers. These programs include some limits on imports and high tariffs for those products. NAFTA also includes a side agreement that expands the volume of Mexican sugar imports into the U.S., while still protecting the U.S. sugar program, which also functions essentially as a supply management program.
The Agriculture and Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) Chapter of NAFTA (Chapter 7) sets broad rules for domestic support, eliminates export subsidies, and establishes a mechanism to handle trade disputes. The second part of the chapter focuses on food safety rules, and ensuring that those rules will not act as a barrier to trade. Equivalency agreements between the three countries streamlined inspections of foods crossing borders, and put pressure on inspectors and food safety agencies to facilitate trade. NAFTA also established an ongoing food safety standards committee to settle disputes between the three countries.
Special rights for foreign corporations
NAFTA was the first free trade agreement to establish special legal rights for foreign corporations. NAFTA’s Chapter 11 established the Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS), which grants foreign investors the right to sue local or national governments over measures that affect their real or potential profits on existing or planned investments.9 This ground-breaking corporate privilege provision has been replicated in nearly every ensuing U.S. trade deal. There have been only a few agricultural ISDS disputes under NAFTA. Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland and Corn Products International have all successfully sued Mexico and won multimillion dollar settlements, for the country’s tariffs on high fructose corn syrup.
NAFTA’s Chapter 17 was the first free trade chapter to include meaningful rules on intellectual property rights (IPR) for seeds and other biological resources. NAFTA built upon on-going international negotiations that ultimately created the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement in the WTO. The NAFTA IPR chapter references the International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants 1978 (UPOV Convention 1978), and the International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants 1991 (UPOV Convention 1991)—which place restrictions on farmers’ and researchers’ rights to save and share seeds.10 While all NAFTA parties were expected to either be part of these Conventions, or join the Conventions soon after, Mexico never did join UPOV 1991—an issue that re-surfaced during the TPP negotiations, and will likely be raised again during NAFTA renegotiations. During the negotiation of Chapter 17, IATP was part of a coalition that criticized the legal and economic disruption by patent holders of traditional agricultural practices, such as the planting of saved seeds and cross-breeding of shared seeds.11
What is the relationship between NAFTA, the World Trade Organization and the Farm Bill?
The rules set in NAFTA (1994), the WTO (1995) and the 1996 Farm Bill are mutually reinforcing. The WTO set a foundation of international trade rules for more than 160 countries. The WTO’s Agreement on Agriculture set international trade rules on agriculture policy, including the types of farm programs that are allowed (non-trade distorting), tariff levels on agricultural goods and how those tariffs may be applied. If NAFTA were eliminated, the trade rules set at the WTO would be the fallback.
The 1996 Farm Bill passed by Congress was designed to comply with trade rules agreed to in NAFTA and the WTO. It stripped away the final remnants of U.S. supply management programs (with sugar the exception), which had intentionally limited production for the purpose of ensuring fair prices to farmers. The 1996 bill was given a slick market-friendly name, “Freedom to Farm” and its elimination of supply management was sold to farmers as necessary for expanding U.S. export markets. That expanded access, the bill’s supporters claimed, would itself ensure fair prices to farmers. This did not turn out to be the case. “Freedom to Farm has really positioned the U.S. very well to take advantage of the opportunities in the world market,” said a Cargill executive shortly after the bill was passed.12
Shortly following the passage of the 1996 Farm Bill, U.S. farm prices predictably plunged following the expanded production—and tens of millions of dollars of emergency payments were needed to prevent many farmers from losing their farms.13 Those low prices, coupled with NAFTA’s and the WTO’s requirements to lower tariffs, facilitated the rapid growth of agricultural export dumping (exporting below the cost of production) by U.S. agribusiness over the next decade.14 Many Mexican farmers who were particularly hard hit by a flood of U.S. corn exports eventually emigrated to the U.S. to work on farms and in meat packing plants. In 2002, the Farm Bill took steps to convert the emergency payments for farmers into commodity program farm subsidies. These programs, further adapted in ensuing Farm Bills, support farmers when prices drop due to over-production, and continue today in the form of revenue-insurance programs.
What are the outcomes of NAFTA?
Because NAFTA entered into force around the same time as the formation of the WTO and the 1996 Farm Bill—not to mention the series of free trade agreements that followed—it is difficult to tie precise outcomes in the agriculture sector to NAFTA. But the trends in agriculture post-NAFTA very clearly show the loss of small and medium sized farms, the rapid expansion of CAFOs and contract production in the meat and poultry sector, and the growing power of multinational agribusiness firms across the North American market. Below we explore outcomes and trends in agriculture and food following the passage of NAFTA.
NAFTA has dramatically contributed to the integration of North American agricultural markets, according to the USDA.15 Integration is when formerly separate markets have combined to form a single market. Final food products, like beef, experience integrated markets as well as raw materials like animal feed.
Agriculture trade among the three countries has expanded considerably, though the U.S. agricultural trade balance with NAFTA partners has fallen with both partners, according to an analysis of government data by the University of Tennessee’s Agricultural Policy Analysis Center (APAC). APAC found that from 1997 through 2014, U.S. overall agricultural trade balance with Canada was a negative $30.4 billion and with Mexico a negative $9.6 billion.16
The top U.S. agricultural exports to Mexico are animal products, grains, oilseeds and sugar, which together made up 79 percent of exports in 2015. Mexico is the top market for U.S. pork, chicken and corn. U.S. corn exports to Mexico more than quadrupled in volume compared to the decade prior to NAFTA.17 Mexico bought about 28 percent of all corn exported from the U.S., $2.5 billion worth, in 2015-16.18
Mexican exports of fruits and vegetables and some animal products to the U.S. also expanded under NAFTA. In the year before NAFTA, the U.S. was largely a net fruit and vegetable exporter, and now is a net importer by a wide margin. Mexico’s annual exports of fruit and vegetables to the U.S. more than tripled by 2013. Mexico and Canada are the largest foreign suppliers of U.S. fruits and vegetables.19
Read the full article on the Institute for Agriculture and Trade policy website here