Tomato Trade Tensions Simmering Again
Nothing says “summer” like a fresh tomato. And thanks to trade, tomatoes aren’t just a seasonal treat for Americans. A trade policy battle, however, over our favorite little red vegetable that had simmered on the back burner for decades recently heated up again and might have threatened our ability to enjoy tomatoes year round.
While NAFTA – now replaced by the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) – eliminated trade barriers for most agricultural exports, trade in tomatoes between the United States and Mexico remains complicated to this day. U.S. growers have made a fresh push for the Administration to protect domestic tomato production against imports of increasingly competitive Mexican produce.
Seasons of Discontent
The United States is the second largest producer of tomatoes in the world, but with each American eating an average of more than 20 pounds of tomatoes a year, we import them to satisfy high demand. Mexico is the largest exporter in the world and the United States’ top international supplier. Of the $2.4 billion worth of tomatoes the United States imported in 2019, $2.1 billion came from Mexico, representing 87.5 percent of total U.S. tomato imports.
Although Mexico exports a wide variety of seasonal produce to the United States ranging from bell peppers to blueberries, it’s trade in tomatoes that has been a consistent source of tension. That’s because tomatoes are one of the highest valued fresh vegetable crops in the United States and Mexican tomatoes directly compete with tomatoes grown in the state of Florida during the winter and early summer.
Over the last two decades, U.S. tomato production has declined substantially while Mexican imports increased. And while Florida is still the top tomato state in the nation, production there has declined steadily since 2000. Florida once had 300 tomato growers, but now has fewer than 50. Labor is one major reason for this change. Fresh tomatoes are largely picked by hand – and farm workers are increasingly hard to find and expensive.
Throughout this downward trend, the American tomato industry has complained that Mexican growers have an unfair advantage. The Mexican tomato industry has significantly ramped up production not just thanks to lower labor costs, but also extensive support from the Mexican government in the form of capital for producers, investment in infrastructure and technology to modernize the industry, and other subsidies throughout the supply chain.
The American tomato industry first filed a case with U.S. trade agencies back in the 1970s seeking relief from competition from low priced tomatoes from Mexico, which they alleged were being sold at less than fair market value in the United States (or “dumped”). The antidumping case was ultimately dropped, but after NAFTA was enacted, Florida tomato growers renewed their complaint, claiming Mexican tomatoes were a threat to the domestic industry. The U.S. International Trade Commission found in favor of U.S. growers. Facing potential antidumping tariffs on their exports, Mexican growers in 1996 entered into what’s known as a “suspension agreement.”
By law, the Commerce Department can suspend an antidumping duty or countervailing duty investigation when the parties in the case reach an agreement that meets certain statutory and policy criteria. Under the tomato suspension agreement, the Mexican industry agreed to reduce production and meet a minimum price floor for fresh tomatoes. Suspension agreements require ongoing monitoring to ensure compliance through a process that is completely separate from NAFTA or USMCA. The tomato suspension agreement of 1996 has been updated and expanded three times: in 2002, 2008 and 2013.
To-may-to, To-mah-to, Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off
The suspension agreements were intended to prevent further dumping and injury to the U.S. tomato industry. However, growers in the U.S. southeast have said the agreements were not successful in achieving that goal because provisions were either unenforceable or subject to loopholes. With those concerns in mind, the Florida Tomato Exchange submitted a request to the Commerce Department in November 2018 to terminate the 2013 suspension agreement.
In February 2019, the Commerce Department notified the Mexican government of its intention to withdraw. On May 7, the U.S. government officially terminated the 2013 suspension agreement and enacted a 17.56 percent duty on imported Mexican tomatoes. Some expressed concern the move would stir up a trade war between the two countries, leading to higher prices for consumers and a reduction in the winter tomato supply as Mexican growers shifted their acreage to other crops, though the Administration stated its willingness to resolve the dispute even as its antidumping investigation continued.
Then, in September 2019, the Administration announced a new suspension agreement had been reached with Mexican exporters, effectively putting an end to the investigation. The new agreement is meant to protect U.S. producers from being undercut on prices. It includes audits and border inspections to prevent imports of low-quality tomatoes that could have a similar effect of depressing prices.
USMCA’s Rotten Tomatoes
At the same time that the antidumping investigation was playing out, USMCA was picking up steam on Capitol Hill. After receiving bipartisan support in the House and Senate, USMCA was signed into law on January 29, 2020 and entered into force on July 1, 2020, officially replacing NAFTA. It is easy to see why most American farmers and ranchers rallied support for USMCA. Canada is the top market for U.S. farm products, with Mexico following in the number two spot. U.S. agricultural exports to both countries totaled $44 billion in 2018.
However, one vocal segment of the U.S. agriculture industry was not entirely happy with the USMCA provisions. Fresh produce growers in the U.S. southeast expressed concern that Mexico continued to undercut their prices, dumping cheap fruits and vegetables in the market during their peak harvest time. Farmers from states including Georgia and Florida argued they had watched NAFTA erode their share of the U.S. market and that USMCA was an opportunity to provide a remedy.
American growers from the southern region pushed for new protections in USMCA through antidumping and countervailing duty provisions as a way to even the playing field from what they see as unfair subsidies, labor and environmental practices by Mexico that make U.S.-grown specialty crops like tomatoes and blueberries less competitive.
To create some leverage in the USMCA negotiations, lawmakers from the southeast region introduced legislation, the Defending Domestic Produce Production Act, designed to make it easier for seasonal growers to petition the Commerce Department and the U.S. International Trade Commission to investigate Mexico’s subsidies and dumping of cheap produce. This change would measure injury to industries with short harvest windows (like tomatoes and strawberries) on a seasonal basis rather than having to prove nation-wide, year-round harm.
Hybrid Views in the Produce Industry
But the U.S. produce industry is not unified in its criticism of seasonal produce imports from Mexico or in its support for a trade remedy to the problem. Growers and distributors in western states like California and Arizona argued against including changes in USMCA because many of those companies work in both the United States and Mexico to ensure fresh produce is available year round. They also worried that Mexico would use the same approach against American produce like apples and grapes. Industry groups in Nogales, Arizona opposed the changes as well, citing a negative ripple effect on their economy if the produce from Mexico that passes through gateway communities were significantly reduced.
Twenty-three Senators and U.S. House members from Arizona, Texas, and California sent a letter to the U.S. Trade Representative opposing attempts to insert seasonal antidumping language into USMCA. The lawmakers wrote: “using USMCA as a vehicle for pursuing seasonal agriculture trade remedies risks pitting different regions of the country against each other.”
While the Trump Administration initially seemed sympathetic to the southeastern growers’ complaints, the provisions ultimately did not make it into USMCA given the concerns of other producers in the sector who would be potential targets for retaliation from Mexico. But the Administration committed to continue an investigation into the issue.
Is the Dispute Ripening Again?
In August 2020, USTR, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and U.S. Department of Commerce held two hearings to collect feedback about whether trade policies are harming American seasonal produce growers. The hearings are part of an effort promised by the Administration to respond to any trade distorting practices within two months of USCMA going into effect.
At the listening sessions, lawmakers and growers from southeastern states spoke out about how their sector is impacted by subsidies and other practices by Mexico that they believe are hurting American agriculture. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) asked the Administration to use Section 301 authority to investigate and potentially take retaliatory action against Mexico.
Following the hearings, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said he is working with USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to come up with a plan to address the growers’ concerns by September 1. What action the Administration may take to protect American producers – notably located in states like Florida that may be key for the president’s re-election bid – remains to be seen.
What we do know is that southeastern produce growers seem cautiously optimistic that the new suspension agreement for tomatoes will be more effective than past iterations. And while most Americans are likely unaware of the ongoing tomato trade tension between the U.S. and Mexico, shoppers undoubtedly benefit from year-round access to affordable fresh produce.
Sarah Hubbart provides communications strategy, content creation, and social media management for TradeVistas. A native of rural Northern California, Sarah has melded communications and policy throughout her career in Washington, D.C., serving in government affairs, issues management, and coalition building roles in the agricultural sector. She is an alum of California State University, Chico and George Washington University.