Supply management dispute likened to ‘family fight’ as North American farmers unite over NAFTA talks

— Farmers from , the United States and Mexico are showing a united front and downplaying irritants as negotiators begin a rewrite of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

While stacks of paper hit negotiating tables for a first round of talks, there were warning bells from a sector that has roundly benefitted from the deal since its adoption in 1994 — with noting many farmers and ranchers helped elect U.S. Donald Trump, who initiated the rewrite.

Representatives from the three ’ biggest agricultural industry groups emphasized their desire for a “do no harm” approach in a joint letter to Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Secretary of Economy Ildefonso Guajardo Villarreal Wednesday.

The presidents of the Canadian of Agriculture, the American Farm Bureau and the Consejo Nacional Agropecuario explain in the letter their industry “would suffer greatly from disruptions to the trading relationships that have developed over the last 23 years.”

They agree on five areas for improvement: increasing regulatory alignment, improving flow of goods across borders, aligning food safety , eliminating non-science-based technical barriers and adapting to technological advances such as e-commerce.

The three leaders spoke to reporters in Washington, D.C. Wednesday. “We are committed to preserving and expanding on the gains agriculture has achieved,” said Zippy Duvall, the American rep, repeating the phrase “do no harm” several times.

There were similar noises from Canadian Ron Bonnett. “We are neighbours, partners and friends. We have a relationship based on trust and understanding. Agriculture has been a success, and remember, do no harm,” he said, adding a variety of agriculture-related jobs in each country could be under threat if existing measures aren’t preserved.

And Mexican representative Bosco de la Vega Valladolid warned North American competitiveness would take a major hit, especially vis-a-vis emerging markets in Asia, if the deal fell apart.

Irritants that have been top of mind in Ottawa, such as the preservation of Canada’s system for in the dairy sector, were scarcely mentioned. Disagreements between the countries were to a family feud.

“We have to, just like families, to set our feelings aside and tell each other that we have a problem,” Duvall said. Bonnett added, on areas of friction, “if we spent our time talking about these, all it would be is a family fight.”

The downplaying of disagreements from farmers came after an opening statement from Lighthizer Wednesday morning that mentioned agriculture as an area of success — all three countries report major wins resulted from NAFTA — but spent much more time on the idea the deal has been a failure, especially for manufacturing and auto industries.

“Our task is a very difficult one,” Lighthizer had concluded. Meanwhile, previous threats Trump might totally axe the deal still hang in the air.

But Duvall noted Trump supporters have been counting on an improved version of NAFTA. “The president of the United States is my president, too, and he’s the president of all the farmers and ranchers across this country who played a major role in getting him elected,” he said. “I don’t see him doing any harm to this treaty that has been good for agriculture.”

The first round of talks continues until Sunday. Though some doubt a speedy negotiation is possible, Americans are pushing for a deal by January.

• Email: [email protected] | Twitter:

About Marie-Danielle Smith