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Letter asks 'trust but verify' stance on Mexico potatoes issue

Groups representing U.S. potato growers have sent a letter to the U.S. agriculture secretary and trade representative asking them to adopt a “trust but verify” stance when it comes to negotiations with Mexico on full market access for fresh U.S. potatoes.

By Sean Ellis

Idaho Farm Bureau Federation

POCATELLO – Groups representing U.S. potato growers have sent a letter to the U.S. agriculture secretary and trade representative asking them to adopt a “trust but verify” stance when it comes to negotiations with Mexico on full market access for fresh U.S. potatoes.

The letter also asks them to consider using Mexican avocado imports – Mexico exports about $2 billion worth of avocados into the United States each year – as leverage to get that nation of 130 million people to allow fresh U.S. spuds to be sold in the entire country.

The letter was sent June 28 by the National Potato Council and state potato organizations, including the Idaho Potato Commission, to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai.

Gaining access to the entire Mexican market for fresh U.S. potatoes has been one of the domestic spud industry’s top priorities for more than two decades.

If and when that happens, “It would mean so much to this industry,” said Pat Kole, vice president of legal and government affairs for the IPC.  

In a 5-0 ruling April 28, Mexico’s Supreme Court overturned 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.

Idaho leads the nation in potato production and gaining access to all of Mexico would be a huge win for the state’s fresh potato industry, as well as potato growers across the U.S.

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.

The U.S. fresh potato industry estimates having full access to Mexico would increase U.S. fresh potato exports by about 15 percent.

The unanimous decision by the Mexican Supreme Court was greeted by U.S. potato growers with tempered excitement because of the long history by CONPAPA, the national confederation of potato growers of Mexico, of throwing up roadblocks to prevent U.S. fresh potatoes from being allowed into the entire nation.

Despite the court ruling, “there are serious concerns about the long-term prospects for successful market access for U.S. potatoes in Mexico,” the letter from NPC and U.S. potato organizations states. “Our concerns come from a 20-year history of the Mexican potato industry and Mexican government undertaking actions to undermine agreements made to open the market.”

Numerous examples of that happening were included in the appendix of the letter, which states that CONPAPA is exerting great political power to impede competition with the U.S.

“This causes serious concern among U.S. potato growers that access to the Mexican market will be only temporary before Mexican officials invent a way to halt imports again,” the letter states.

The letter says the most recent indication of this intention occurred in April when SENASICA, Mexico’s version of the U.S. Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, unilaterally changed its U.S. fresh potato import protocol without notice to the United States.

The new protocol involves additional sampling of U.S. potatoes that will be sent to a laboratory selected and paid for by CONPAPA.

“The clear goal of this unilateral change is to manufacture a reason to close the market to U.S. fresh potatoes at some point in the future,” states the NPC letter, which was signed by CEO Kam Quarles.

The U.S. government would never allow a U.S. industry to involve itself in inspecting and overseeing a competing country’s imports, the letter states.

“That is something that has never been agreed to in any trade deal I’ve ever seen,” Kole said.

Mexico’s agriculture secretary is expected to travel to Washington, D.C., in early August to meet with his counterpart, Vilsack, and the meeting is expected to include a discussion of the decades-long issue concerning Mexico’s ban on the full importation of fresh U.S. potatoes.

The NPC letter urges Vilsack and Tai “to maintain a ‘trust but verify’ stance with Mexico.”

It also says that without some sort of leverage, the pattern of CONPAPA using its political influence to cause the Mexican government to close that country’s market to fresh U.S. potatoes will simply repeat itself.

The letter suggests using Mexican avocado exports to the U.S. as leverage in the negotiations.

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.

“Should Mexico continue its historical pattern by delaying reinstating market access for U.S. potatoes or illegitimately restricting the market, we strongly urge USDA and USTR to move forward with the dispute resolution process under the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement and thereby seek to apply tariffs against Mexican exports to the U.S. such as avocados,” the NPC letter states.

American Falls potato farmer Klaren Koompin, a member of the NPC’s board of directors, has been involved in this issue for more than 20 years and said he believes the only way it will get solved is by using Mexican avocado imports as leverage.

“I guarantee you, if you stop $2 billion worth of avocados from coming into the U.S., those guys will come to a solution,” he said. “I’m skeptical that it will ever happen without pressure on Mexico from some other point, i.e., no more Mexican avocados into the U.S. until we get this solved.”

The NPC letter concludes: “Success in this matter will lead to hundreds of millions of dollars in additional U.S. agricultural exports and substantial benefits for both U.S. growers and Mexican consumers.”