karen ross

Karen Ross, secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, speaks at the 36th annual Agribusiness Management Conference Thursday in Fresno. Photo by David Castellon

published on November 10, 2017 - 1:42 PM
Written by David Castellon

President Donald Trump revving up talk of the U.S. pulling out of the North American Free Trade Agreement should worry California farmers, the state’s agricultural secretary said Thursday in Fresno.

“There’s a big difference in walking away from a deal when it’s your company, your capital, your employees, your family’s reputation. This is millions of businesses and millions of families that will be affected. I’m very worried,” Secretary Karen Ross said of the longstanding trade deal with Mexico and Canada.

She made the comments during her keynote speech at Thursday’s 36th annual Agribusiness Management Conference, organized by Fresno State’s Institute for Food and Agriculture at the Double Tree Hotel and Conference Center.

The nearly 24-year-old treaty created a North American free-trade zone, eliminating tariff barriers on agricultural and manufactured goods and services, along with other actions intended to make trade cheaper and easier between the countries.

Since his campaign for president, Trump has outright called NAFTA the worst deal in history, saying it has cost U.S. manufacturing jobs, in part because it makes it easier for U.S. industries to relocate to Mexico, where labor is cheaper and regulations fewer.

This week, while the three countries have been negotiating possible changes, the president has indicated a hardline willingness to let the agreement die if it’s not changed to favor U.S. interests.

“I happen to think that NAFTA will have to be terminated if we’re going to make it good. Otherwise, I believe you can’t negotiate a good deal,” he told Forbes Magazine in a recent interview.

Ross said Sunny Perdue, Trump’s secretary of agriculture, carried his boss’ banner on NAFTA Sunday when he spoke at Modesto Junior College.

“I think everyone agrees there are technical aspects that need to be upgraded to current knowledge, current science [in NAFTA], but those are small things,” Ross told the crowd in Fresno.

“When I look at the future, it is very dependent on trade, and when I got the news yesterday that Sonny Perdue and his staff at USDA are working on a contingency plan for how to mitigate the harm if the U.S. withdraws from NAFTA, I will tell you that’s enough to keep me awake at night time. I don’t see where that’s possible.”

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which supports NAFTA, reports that as of 2016, trade with Canada and Mexico supported nearly 14 million U.S. jobs, and more than 4.9 million of them could be attributed to the treaty.

More than 1.6 million of those jobs were in California, with about a third of them attributed to NAFTA.

Perdue told Politico after his California trip that he didn’t think a contingency plan would be needed, as he believed “NAFTA 2.0” likely will be negotiated successfully.

“There’ll be some nervous bumps in the meantime,” because trade is so important to American agriculture, he told the online site.

Still, the threat of the U.S. pulling out of NAFTA seems real to many.

“Mexico is already doing what it needs to do. I spend quite a bit of time in Mexico,” Ross said. “They just have signed some agreements with Argentina for wheat. The dairy people are frightened to death. We are in a surplus of dairy products right now. What if we lose Mexico? How do we possibly get that much [milk] into other markets around the world?”

“So much product not having a home for some period of time is very disruptive.”

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