When the negotiations for NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement, or Tratado de Libre Comercio de América del Norte, TLCAN, as it is known in Mexico) resume between the U.S., Mexico and Canada in September, a coalition of produce growers will have an important message for the three countries: Fruit and vegetable growers and distributors support North American free trade.
Just importantly, says the newly formed Produce Coalition for NAFTA, it supports a healthy upgrade of regulations and agreements to modernize contracts on all sides.
The coalition, which includes big-name produce growers like Driscolls, Taylor Farms, Mission Farms, and Wonderful Citrus support talks between the three countries, but they also want to ensure that produce sales remain duty-free.
The organization, which represents fruit and vegetable growers across the U.S. and Canada, says it supports the North American Free Trade Agreement because when it was implemented in 1994, it “eliminated tariffs and resulted in more year-round availability for the U.S. consumer.”
It also opened doors on all three borders, facilitating growing and transportation agreements that both cut down labor costs and surpassed transportation hurdles when climate issues, like winter weather challenges got in the way. In 2014, more than 99 percent of fresh strawberries imported into the U.S. were shipped in from fields in Mexico.
It has also allowed for stores in California and British Columbia, Canada to keep their tomato shelves stocked during winter periods when Mexico’s warmer weather was more hospitable to harvesting warm-weather produce.
And as for avocados, a fruit that has been getting the cautious eye by environmentalists in recent years because of its high demand for water, agreements between Mexico and the U.S. producers have been a “win-win” for all three countries.
“U.S. consumption of avocados has increased by nearly five times since the U.S. border opened to Mexican imports. All growers have benefited from securing long-term partnerships with major foodservice operators who now have enough supply to put avocados on the menu,” points out Mission Produce President and CEO Steve Barnard. Canada (at this time, perhaps) does not have the temperate climate to support avocado produce, which are heavily sought after in many parts of the northern country.
Of course, not everyone is sold on NAFTA these days. As TriplePundit has covered in the past, many of the smaller Mexican produce companies have found it hard to leverage a benefit from NAFTA, which largely has gone to support large-scale production and has benefited from cross-border funding from larger companies.
Nor is it reasonable to say that NAFTA’s at times acrimonious negotiations hinge on which side of the borders produce growers harvest their products. Trump’s assertion that NAFTA represents “huge trade deficits and lost manufacturing jobs” for Americans ignores the fact that many of the companies that harvest those tomatoes, citrus and warm-weather produce in Mexico are U.S.-based and reap the benefit of climate conditions they would not necessarily benefit from within the U.S. (or Canada).
In recent years a small number of U.S. produce companies have come under scrutiny for other problems — namely, labor disputes. In 2016, workers in Washington State who provide produce for Driscolls through its contracted grower, Sakuma Brothers gained union representation after several years of tense negotiations and complaints. But according to PRI, workers who harvest produce in Mexico directly for Driscolls have yet to see the same labor representation.
Taylor Farms as well, has found itself embroiled in labor disputes spanning accusations ranging from labor standards abuse to failure to permit union activity. A report in 2014 accused the company of taking advantage of undocumented immigrants. In 2016 new complaints surfaced, with unions attempting to unionize through some of its biggest customers: McDonald’s and Chipotle and this year, the company came under fire for labor violations.
Other companies in the coalition represent smaller U.S. or Canadian produce growers with longstanding and amicable histories of cross-border relationships. The coalition notes that since NAFTA’s implementation in 2014, the total value of trade exports and imports across the three country’s borders has grown from $16.7 billion (1993, the year prior to its launch) to $82 billion in 2013.
The coalition is calling for “modernizing NAFTA,” although it hasn’t clarified how the three countries should accomplish that or how challenges brought up over the years by labor groups about disproportionate pay opportunities in the three countries could be resolved. And judging from President Trump’s stance when it comes to the U.S. role in NAFTA, it’s not yet clear either, whether labor rights and the role of companies to meet such demands will ultimately have a place at this month’s international negotiating table.