With the fifth round of negotiations on the North American Free Trade Agreement set to begin Thursday, Nebraskans whose livelihoods are in or tied to agriculture have reason to be nervous.
Uncertainty surrounding the fate of the pact between the United States, Canada and Mexico — from which President Donald Trump has repeatedly threatened to withdraw, possibly as a last-ditch bargaining chip — has caused Mexican buyers to begin searching for other sources in case they lose access to the American producers they’ve long trusted.
If Trump truly wants to put America first, as he reiterated during his recent visit to Asia, he’d be best served by doing so in a manner that protects the financial interests of America’s farmers and ranchers, whose output benefits the country as a whole — particularly at a time of strain in their industry.
Canada and Mexico have been the biggest customers of American farm commodities, with the Washington Post reporting agricultural exports more than quadrupled from $8.9 billion in 1993 to $38.1 billion in 2016.
For as much as Trump frets about and equates a trade deficit as being unfair, giving short shrift to agriculture would only compound matters. Nebraska alone recorded a $2.8 billion trade surplus in 2016, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, with $6.4 billion in goods exported — more than half sold to Canada and Mexico — compared to $3.6 billion in imports.
Without the market access that currently exists for Canada and Mexico, the current slump in U.S. agriculture would be even worse. High supply has depressed commodity prices; NAFTA has served a critical role in mitigating it, at least somewhat, by making it easy to export within the continent.
And, in a state where agriculture supports one in four jobs, the timing to potentially pull the rug out from the leading industry couldn’t be worse.
Nebraska’s personal income has declined by 0.3 percent through the first two quarters of 2017, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts. The country as a whole, meanwhile, has seen 1.3 percent growth in that time. Among the 10 states to see declines, seven are in the central U.S.; Colorado and Missouri are the only states bordering Nebraska to report growth.
This spring, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue convinced Trump not to withdraw from NAFTA by showing him an electoral map, Politico reported. With farm and ranch country being among the president’s most loyal strongholds, a move to leave the pact could endanger the livelihoods of many who supported Trump.
With only two more rounds of negotiations scheduled, the upcoming meeting carries significant weight for Nebraska and the Midwest — and the president must heed their concerns about the potential damage a senseless exit would do to agriculture.