By Sean Ellis
Idaho Farm Bureau Federation
POCATELLO – The Idaho and U.S. potato industry is celebrating a decision by the Mexican Supreme Court that will open up that entire nation to fresh potatoes from the United States.
The court ruled 5-0 April 28 to overturn a 2017 lower court decision that prevented the Mexican federal government from implementing regulations to allow for the importation of fresh U.S. potatoes throughout the entire country.
Fresh potatoes from the United States are currently only allowed within a 16-mile area along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Gaining access for fresh potatoes to all of Mexico, which has a population of 130 million, has been one of the U.S. potato industry’s top priorities for more than two decades.
Idaho leads the nation in total potato production and the state’s farmers produce about a third of the U.S. spud supply.
Potatoes are the state’s top crop in terms of total farm-gate receipts and opening the entire Mexican market to fresh U.S. potatoes would be a major benefit to Idaho’s agricultural industry.
“The Idaho potato industry is thrilled with this announcement from the Mexican Supreme Court,” said Idaho Potato Commission President and CEO Frank Muir. “We look forward to working with Idaho’s shippers and Mexican customers who are anxious to receive Idaho potatoes….”
The U.S. fresh potato industry has long sought to gain access to all of Mexico for many years and the Mexican potato industry has fought that attempt every step of the way, said American Falls potato farmer Klaren Koompin.
Koompin said the unanimous decision by Mexico’s Supreme Court is exciting news but he is also somewhat worried that Mexico’s potato industry will find another way to delay opening up their country to fresh potato exports from the U.S.
“I’m not a worrier but this has been a struggle for the U.S. potato industry for 20 years,” he said. “We’re excited as heck with the ruling but it’s a tempered enthusiasm.”
According to the National Potato Council, Mexico is the third largest export market for U.S. potatoes and potato products and more than $270 million worth of potatoes and potato products from the United States were sold there in 2020.
Despite the 16-mile border zone restriction, Mexico is the second largest market for fresh U.S. potato exports, accounting for 106,000 metric tons valued at $60 million in 2020.
According to the NPC, the U.S. potato industry estimates that if the United States is able to export fresh potatoes into the entire country, it would provide a market potential of $200 million per year in five years.
National Potato Council CEO Kam Quarles said the U.S. fresh potato industry estimates having access to all of Mexico would increase U.S. fresh potato exports by about 15 percent.
“Expanding an export market by that much is a huge deal,” he said.
The U.S. and Mexican governments in 2002 announced both sides would resolve two long-standing market access issue – the U.S. agreed to expand market access for Mexican avocados and Mexico agreed to open the entire country to U.S. fresh potatoes.
The U.S. now imports about $2 billion worth of Mexican avocados each year while Mexico remains mostly closed to fresh potatoes from the United States.
The Mexican government in 2011 agreed to allow U.S. potatoes full access to that country beginning in 2014. However, Mexico’s potato industry – the National Confederation of Potato Growers of Mexico (CONPAPA) – sued its government to prevent that from happening and that case ended up before Mexico’s Supreme Court.
CONPAPA claimed Mexican regulators have no authority to determine if agricultural imports can enter the country.
A justice of the Mexican Supreme Court released a draft ruling Feb. 17 that would overturn a lower court ruling preventing the Mexican federal government from implementing regulations to allow fresh U.S. potatoes to be imported throughout the country.
The case was scheduled to be decided by the full five-member court on Feb. 24 but the vote was postponed indefinitely. The court’s April 28 decision was closely watched by members of the U.S. potato industry and news of the unanimous decision spread quickly among Idaho and other U.S. potato growers.
Now, they’re hoping the decision sticks and Mexico is opened to U.S. fresh potatoes soon.
“Hopefully, this thing is going to come to fruition,” said Koompin, a member of the NPC’s board of directors. “It’s going to be a good market.”
Quarles said all of Mexico was actually opened to fresh potato exports from the U.S. for a brief three-week period in 2014 before the CONPAPA lawsuit stopped that.
The Mexican government can simply reinstate that market access for fresh U.S. potatoes, he said.
“The hope is they will, within a matter of months, reinstate that market access,” Quarles said. “They can do this; the question is, will they do this? The hope is they won’t … drag their feet.”
Muir said he is cautiously optimistic the Mexico Supreme Court’s decision is the final say on this issue and that country will soon be fully open to fresh U.S. potato imports.
He also noted that Idaho has already developed a strong presence within the 16-mile zone in Mexico where fresh U.S. potatoes are currently allowed to be imported.
“We will just wait for the details,” he said. “I’m confident Idaho potato growers will benefit greatly from this….”
Jared Balcom, the NPC’s vice president of trade affairs and a potato grower from Washington, said in a news release that the Mexico Supreme Court ruling is consistent with that nation’s obligations under the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement and the World Trade Organization.
“After decades of delay, we hope this ruling represents a light at the end of the tunnel and that Mexican regulators will immediately begin working on regulations to allow for the importation of fresh U.S. potatoes throughout their country,” he said.
Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, said in the news release that the court decision is a positive step forward.
“I will not, however, consider the matter finished until Idaho’s farmers are able to sell high-quality potatoes to every family in Mexico, as is their right under the (USMCA),” he said.