By Jim Turner, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam would like the renegotiated and rebranded North American Free Trade Agreement to do more to help the state’s farmers.
And he’s not alone, as U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., also expressed concerns about the absence of relief for Florida agriculture in the revamped trade pact announced late Sunday.
Putnam, who has long been a critic of the 24-year-old NAFTA, pointed to a need for more work to help Florida farmers who compete with growers in Mexico.
“I am disappointed that this new agreement has no new protections for Florida fruit and vegetable producers, who for too long have suffered from Mexico’s unfair trade practices despite our best efforts,” Putnam said in an email Tuesday.
“Our department, Florida’s congressional delegation and industry groups have fought hard to protect our specialty crop industry since the inception of NAFTA, and we will continue to do so as this new agreement moves forward,” Putnam added.
Putnam has argued for years that pepper and tomato growers and other Florida farmers have struggled against Mexican counterparts who swamp the U.S. market each winter with low-cost produce.
Officials from the U.S., Mexico and Canada announced the new deal late Sunday, after President Donald Trump made revamping NAFTA one of his priorities.
The deal, which needs congressional approval, includes numerous issues, ranging from auto manufacturing and Canadian dairy imports to a dispute-settlement system. Trump, who campaigned in 2016 arguing that NAFTA was poorly negotiated and hurting American workers and manufacturers, has proposed naming the revised pact as the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement.
Rubio spokeswoman Olivia Perez-Cubas said in an email Tuesday that “our concerns for Florida fruit and vegetables remain.”
A little more than a year ago, Rubio and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., were among Florida lawmakers who urged U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer to push for measures to help the state’s agriculture industry.
Last week, after initial details of a deal with Mexico were announced, Rubio and Nelson introduced legislation intended to help Florida farmer growers bring trade cases against Mexican growers. Under the proposal, farmers could initiate cases with the Department of Commerce and the U.S. International Trade Commission if they can prove dumping happens seasonally rather than year-round, according a news release from the senators.
Rubio said in a statement that the bill is aimed at preventing dumping of Mexican winter produce into U.S. markets and is needed because of the absence of “a memorandum of understanding or suspension agreements with the Mexican government covering seasonal and perishable produce imports.”
In April, Putnam sent a letter to Lighthizer urging him to consider Florida’s agriculture industry in negotiating changes to NAFTA.
Putnam told Lighthizer that “family farms in Florida and other states have found no relief from these unfair practices in our current trade laws or the current NAFTA agreement.”
In 2016, as the business-recruitment agency Enterprise Florida talked about expanding Florida’s role in international trade, Putnam said it was already too late to undo damage to the state’s growers from NAFTA.
“The entire tomato industry has realigned and very much is a shadow of its former self,” Putnam said in November 2016.
At the time, Putnam said the most helpful thing Trump could do would be to enforce protections in the trade agreement that are supposed to keep American producers from being undercut by such things as product dumping and currency manipulation.
“Prior administrations just didn’t enforce the letter of the treaty to begin with,” Putnam said. “Gosh, just that alone would be a step in the right direction.”