U.S. should keep Mexican tomato agreement and ignore election year demands from Florida growers

Mexican greenhouse tomatoes
Mexican tomatoes,ripened in the field or in a greenhouse, have improved flavor and aroma over the gassed greens coming out of Florida. Better price, better quality.

Some groups never tire of seeking protection.

One special interest with its hand perpetually out is the group led by Florida tomato growers. For decades they have been trying to stop tomatoes from Mexico from competing with them in the U.S. market.

Never mind that Mexican tomatoes, because they are ripened in the field or in a greenhouse, have improved flavor and aroma over the gassed greens coming out of Florida.

Never mind that protected agriculture tecnhologies have helped Mexican growers reduce inputs and increase yields, making them more efficient.

Because Florida growers have not been able to keep up with these advances from Mexico, they’ve resorted to trade wars, which eliminate jobs in both countries and increase food prices at the check-out line.

Importers of Mexican produce and Florida growers have been battling it out in the marketplace since the 1930s.

In the 1990s they were rebuffed by the U.S. International Trade Commission, which said Mexican imports didn’t harm U.S. tomato and bell pepper growers.

Never ones to take a hint, the Florida growers filed another case, timed to coincide with the 1996 U.S. presidential election, claiming that Mexican tomatoes were being dumped in the U.S. market and that high tariffs should be imposed.

With great wisdom, the U.S. government and the Mexican tomato growing industry instead took the high road and entered an agreement suspending this anti-dumping investigation and finding a workable solution that put this trade war to rest.

The Mexican growers agreed not to sell tomatoes in the U.S. market below a reference price calculated by the U.S. government to eliminate any lower-price sales.

They did this even though there was never any final decision by the U.S. government that there had been any dumping or that Mexican tomato imports injured a single Florida grower.

That agreement has worked for 16 years. It has been renewed two times, the reference price has increased, and no violation has ever been found.

The U.S. government has held three times that it is in the public interest, has stabilized the U.S. market, preserved resources and fostered free and fair trade with Mexico.

In short, the agreement has done what governments are supposed to do — avoid conflict, promote trade and increase prosperity.

Enter 2012, however, and a presidential election year in the U.S. and the Florida growers want more protection.

Using a ruse to say they are no longer interested in having an anti-dumping order or a suspension agreement in place, the Florida growers are asking that the agreement be scrapped.

In the same breath, they are saying publicly that they will immediately file a new case, and that the only public interest at stake here is their own narrow interest in raising prices — not those of consumers, the U.S. government or U.S-Mexican relations.

Apparently, they like their chances in an election year to ratchet up their level of protection, and would choose politics over the investments they refuse to make.

It has been 18 years since NAFTA went into effect, with the goal of reducing trade barriers and friction between the U.S. and Mexico.

The tomato agreement has helped realize that goal in trade of fresh fruits and vegetables. That agreement also wisely put mechanisms in place for addressing concerns and issues without reigniting a trade war.

Now, at a time when fair trade is needed most as the national economy struggles to recover, those mechanisms should be used and a new trade war averted.

The U.S. government, exercising the discretion it has under the law, should reject this political subterfuge and let the agreement continue to work.

It is time to tell Florida no.

Jaime Chamberlain is the president of Nogales, Ariz.-based J-C Distributing Inc., a U.S. importer of fruits and vegetables. This opinion piece was first published in THE PACKER, and industry trade publication on July 21, 2012