‘We need you to make good.’ Rubio, Florida officials urge Trump to help growers.

Republicans and Democrats from Florida argued that a North American trade agreement must be revised to prevent Mexican growers from undercutting Florida’s produce industry.
U.S. Senator Marco Rubio.
U.S. Senator Marco Rubio.
Published Aug. 14, 2020

WASHINGTON — The United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement was supposed to be one of the Trump administration’s signature policy achievements, a trade deal to bolster President Donald Trump’s standing with voters in key swing states.

But Florida’s produce industry was excluded from the deal, which went into effect on July 1, and the state’s political leaders are now urging the Trump administration to push for changes in the USMCA, three months before Election Day.

In a virtual hearing on Thursday, Republicans and Democrats from Florida argued to United States Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross that the deal must be revised to prevent Mexican growers from undercutting Florida’s produce industry.

“What we’re asking for is fair trade with our neighbors,” Republican Sen. Marco Rubio said to Lighthizer, Perdue and Ross, Trump’s top trade officials, who led U.S. negotiations on the deal. “As you guys have assured us on multiple occasions, this situation would not be the final word on it. We’re truly hoping that can be followed up with some action.”

Rubio wants Lighthizer to investigate Mexico’s trade practices in the produce sector. Launching an official investigation could lead the Trump administration to take retaliatory action against Mexico if it determines Mexico’s produce industry “burdens or restricts” U.S. commerce in an “unjustifiable” manner, according to Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974.

Lawmakers and Florida officials like Agriculture Secretary Nikki Fried argued during the hearing that the state’s fruit and vegetable industry is undermined by produce subsidized by the Mexican government, which gives Mexican produce an unfair advantage in the U.S. marketplace. Florida’s produce industry is particularly harmed by the practice because its growing season overlaps with Mexico’s, they said.

“For 25 years, NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement] allowed domestic markets to be flooded with cheap produce from Mexico,” said Fried, the state’s top Democratic elected official. “Domestic producers hoped this would be addressed, but they found themselves on the cutting floor as the USMCA was finalized.”

Perdue said Mexico refused to budge on lifting subsidies during USMCA negotiations.

“It became very apparent it was the red line for Mexico,” Perdue said. “We want to know what we can do aside from closing the borders.”

But politicians from Western states, particularly Arizona, are not in favor of helping Florida’s growers in trade negotiations because their state benefits from Mexican produce crossing the border into the U.S. market. Arizona is also a potential swing state in this year’s presidential election.

The USMCA was passed by the House of Representatives in December 2019 and the U.S. Senate in January 2020, with Trump signing it into law a few weeks after. The agreement went into effect on July 1 and ends after 16 years unless Mexico, Canada and the U.S. agree to extend it.

The trade deal was a rare successful compromise for Republicans and Democrats, and it passed overwhelmingly after House Democrats won the support of major unions when Trump agreed to appoint a panel of experts to make sure Mexico abides by union rules and labor protections.

All but one of Florida’s 27 House members voted for the trade deal along with Rubio and Republican Sen. Rick Scott, though Fried opposed it due to the produce issue. But the state’s political leadership has been pushing the Trump administration for months to come up with a solution.

“Florida’s fresh-produce industry is in deep crisis,” said Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association president Mike Joyner. “It needs prompt USTR trade relief if our country hopes to continue feeding Americans domestically grown fruits and vegetables in the fall, winter and spring months.”

Florida’s produce industry is largely concentrated in Central Florida, though significant amounts of crops like tomatoes are grown in southern Miami-Dade County.

Trump’s 2016 campaign pledge to end NAFTA and replace it with a superior deal was part of his appeal to white, working class voters in key swing states after he argued the agreement signed into law by President Bill Clinton hurt American jobs.

In 2019, Perdue argued that the concerns of the Florida produce industry were overblown.

“Certain folks have been saying USMCA will not protect Florida farmers from cheap Mexican fruits and vegetables,” Perdue wrote in a Tallahassee Democrat editorial. “They neglect to mention farmers already face such competition under NAFTA. And they overlook the ways the administration is fighting for a level playing field in the seasonal fruit and vegetable market.”

But while Florida’s agricultural output increased under NAFTA, the state’s national market share for many fruits and vegetables decreased while Mexico’s increased.

“In 2007, Florida growers had nearly one-third of the blueberry market share,” Democratic Rep. Darren Soto said. “But as of 2019, Mexico accounts for 30% of the blueberry market and Florida has 16%.”

And Rubio argued that the COVID-19 pandemic increases the need for the U.S. to rely on its domestic food supply instead of foreign production.

“I believe that as we turn towards economic recovery from the pandemic, [Florida growers] desperately need this problem addressed,” Rubio said.