Certified fresh trade policy

There might not be a staple of the American diet more at risk if there were to be a disruption in U.S.-Mexico trade than chips and fresh salsa.

Considering Arizona’s culinary preferences, it could constitute a minor emergency here.

Nogales, Arizona, home to the modern Mariposa Port of Entry, is one the nation’s leading entry points for Mexican-grown tomatoes, which end up in not just in fresh salsa, but in salads, pasta dishes and so much more.

Trade keeps Nogales humming year-round, but it’s during cold-weather months that the importance of Nogales’ produce trade sector becomes especially clear. The impressive logistics network in Nogales is vitally important to American shoppers’ ability to find great-tasting vine-ripened tomatoes in their local store’s produce section, from Safford to Seattle. It’s why Gov. Ducey’s administration has fast-tracked improvements to SR-189, the state highway that links the port with Interstate 19, and it’s why the governor’s budget calls for funding for a cold storage unit at Mariposa so produce doesn’t spoil if it needs to be unloaded for a more thorough inspection.

Thanks to the North American Free Trade Agreement, Mexican-grown tomatoes can be imported through Mariposa and other ports of entry tariff-free, which keeps them affordable. After all, tariffs are taxes that get passed on to consumers.

So, credit to the Trump administration, which rejected loud calls from Florida agricultural interests to insert so-called “seasonality” provisions into the new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement—the successor to NAFTA—to dramatically limit the import of Mexican-grown tomatoes.

The Florida crowd wants to throw up barriers to Mexican tomatoes to give their state’s products the upper hand. They want it to be easier to bring investigations of unfair trade practices against Mexico over claims that tomatoes are being dumped into the U.S. market and that the industry in that country is benefitting from government subsidies.

But in reality, Florida’s beef is with U.S. consumers, who prefer Mexico’s greenhouse-grown, vine-ripened varieties over Florida’s, which are picked green from the field and then artificially ripened with ethylene gas before they get to grocery stores or restaurants.

The small but vocal band of Florida interests were stymied in their attempts not only to insert import limits into USMCA, but also last year’s Farm Bill. But after consistent pestering from some members of that state’s congressional delegation, the Department of Commerce last month announced its intention to withdraw from the current agreement that governs U.S.-Mexico tomato trade. Known as the Tomato Suspension Agreement because it suspended a dumping investigation against Mexico, the 2013 deal brought stability to the market. That’s all at risk now.

The Commerce Department will exit the agreement in early May, which not only risks duties being assessed on U.S. tomato importers, but could drive up costs for U.S. shoppers, while cutting quality and variety.

Not only are consumers poised to lose, but so is the U.S. economy. According to an analysis released last November by the University of Arizona, Mexican fresh tomatoes are responsible for over 30,000 U.S. jobs and nearly $5 billion in total sales. That’s a lot of fresh salsa.

Arizona leaders aren’t sitting on their hands, though.

Most members of our congressional delegation, including Senators Kyrsten Sinema and Martha McSally and House Ways and Means Committee member David Schweikert, sent aletter to Commerce Sec. Wilbur Ross on March 1 citing their concerns over the decision to withdraw from the agreement.

“We encourage the Administration to continue to craft agricultural trade policy that seeks to strengthen the industry nationally, not one that is calibrated around regional or seasonal interests,” the letter said.

The Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry joined with a large private-public sector coalition of free trade advocates in sending a similar letter to Commerce, which said that “Terminating the agreement risks retaliation to our domestic agriculture industry and creates economic uncertainty throughout the supply chain.”

These are the right messages. USMCA modernizes NAFTA and enhances the competitiveness of the U.S. economy. The protectionist measures sought by Florida are a step backward that run counter to the spirit of cooperation that defines the U.S.-Mexico relationship and that is embodied in the USMCA.

A new agreement on tomatoes should put consumers and the health of the U.S. economy first—not regional interests.

Glenn Hamer is the president and CEO of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry

Glenn Hamer

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