New NAFTA falls short of 'more ambitious goals' for agribusiness, says CoBank report

  • When it comes to the new NAFTA deal, "modest benefits" the U.S. agriculture industry may see are "overshadowed" as a result of continued retaliatory tariffs imposed by Mexico and Canada, according to a new CoBank report.
  • Agricultural groups have been pushing the Trump administration to once again exempt Canada and Mexico from the U.S. steel tariffs.
  • Without relief from the tariffs, the situation could get much more difficult ahead for America's agribusiness, a CoBank executive said.
Cows graze on a dairy farmin Porterville in California's Central Valley. 
Robyn Beck | AFP | Getty Images
Cows graze on a dairy farmin Porterville in California's Central Valley. 

Despite gains from the new NAFTA deal with Mexico and Canada, it falls short in reaching "more ambitious goals" of certain agribusiness sectors, a CoBank report said Friday.

According to CoBank, the newly minted United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA, looks in many respects "very similar to the old one. It will lead to significant change in the auto industry, but changes to other industries will be marginal, including agriculture."

Among the changes in the modernized North American Free Trade Agreement are that the U.S. will get additional access to Canada's dairy market, going to about 3.6 percent market access from roughly 1 percent. Also, a controversial milk pricing class in Canada will be eliminated, which CoBank said "should level the playing field" more for U.S. producers and allow some to regain lost market share.

U.S. wine producers also stand to get more access to Canada under USMCA along with the poultry and egg sectors.

Mexico started to warm trade ties with Argentina and Brazil during the trade dispute, so the new agreement is seen as good news for producers of American farm commodities that compete with Brazil and Argentina, including U.S. grains and livestock products.

"Each agricultural sector will interpret USMCA differently," the bank's report said. "To some, it is a significant step forward and to others it is akin to preservation of the status quo."

'Modest benefits' of new deal

The bank said "modest benefits that U.S. agriculture will gain from USMCA, however, will continue to be overshadowed by the remaining retaliatory tariffs imposed by Mexico and Canada."

In March, President Donald Trump rolled out tariffs on imported steel and aluminum and initially exempted some allies but then in late May lifted the exemption for Canada and Mexico. That led to new retaliatory tariffs of up to 25 percent from some allies.

"The big thing that's missing is addressing the retaliatory tariffs," said Daniel Kowalski, an economist and vice president of CoBank's Knowledge Exchange division. He said there are still tariffs both in Mexico and Canada that are in "[agricultural or food] markets that are large and have been grown over the course of years and decades."

There's a 20 percent retaliatory tariff on U.S. pork going into Mexico and a 25 percent tariff on some dairy products, including cheeses. Mexico was the largest volume market last year for U.S. hog producers and the No. 1 destination for U.S. cheese.

In July, Canada imposed tit-for-tat tariffs on a wide variety of American products in response to the steel duties, including 10 percent surtaxes on U.S. prepared beef products. The U.S. exported about $800 million in beef to Canada last year and the tariffs on processed beef were about 20 percent of the total value.

Risk of losing ground

"If we don't get relief from those tariffs within the next several months, it's going to be difficult to sustain what we've gained, let alone trying to grow those markets," said Kowalski.

Canada also introduced tariffs on U.S. yogurt, ketchup and soup products.

Certain agriculture groups have been pushing the administration to once again exempt Canada and Mexico from the U.S. steel tariffs. The U.S. Trade Representative's Office didn't respond to a request for comment on the status of talks to resolve the retaliatory tariffs with Mexico and Canada.

"We're continuing to urge the administration to drop the metal tariffs so that Mexico will remove the tariffs on pork," said Jim Monroe, a spokesman for the National Pork Producers Council. "I can't speculate on when that will happen, but we're confident that we will get over that hurdle."

Total U.S. pork exports fell 5 percent to $465.3 million in July compared with the year-ago period, according to NPPC. Monroe said it marked the lowest monthly value since February 2016 and was "an indication of Mexican and Chinese tariff pressure and the prices exports can command."

U.S. exports of pork products to Mexico totaled $1.5 billion last year, according to NPPC.

Meantime, dairy exports to Canada and Mexico in recent years have averaged nearly $2 billion annually and accounted for up to 40 percent of export sales, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation.

"We're pleased that the text of USMCA preserved commitments of zero tariffs between the U.S. and Mexico on dairy trade," said Shawna Morris, vice president of trade policy for the U.S. Dairy Export Council. "But we also need to get back to genuinely duty-free trading conditions in practice as well."

She added, "Mexico's retaliatory tariffs on U.S. cheese exports remain a deep concern for our exporters. We are urging the U.S. and Mexico to swiftly resolve the metal and retaliatory tariffs to restore fully open trade in dairy products with our No. 1 export market."