Drug trafficking and border security captured most of the headlines during Mexican President Felipe Calderon's recent visit to the United States, but the one issue that many in the Mid-Columbia had on their minds seemed to escape notice.
Mexican tariffs on U.S. products have had a devastating impact on Washington's agricultural industry, forcing the loss of revenue and jobs.
In a news conference following his meeting with President Obama, the Mexican leader told reporters that the two countries are working quickly to resolve the issue.
The comment didn't seem to get much attention outside specialty publications aimed at the trucking industry, but whether Calderon's promise holds up is of vital interest to Washington's farmers.
For our potato industry alone, the tariffs have meant a loss of $14 million in frozen product exports in the past year. Exports of pears, onions, cherries and other locally grown crops also have been severely curtailed. Eighty-seven products in all are subject to the tariffs.
The tariffs came about because the U.S. Congress ended a cross-border demonstration project allowing Mexican trucks onto U.S. highways. In retaliation, Mexico added a 20 percent tariff to frozen potatoes, for example, making exports cost-prohibitive.
We've seen Con Agra close two processing plants in recent months in the Northwest because of decreasing demand for frozen potato products.
Our neighbors to the north in Canada are reaping the rewards from the border battle in the south, with exports increasing by 50 percent over the same period.
In our state, industry representatives say potato acreage already has taken a hit, and they expect it will only get worse. A 50 percent further decline in frozen product exports is projected if a remedy isn't quickly found.
Nationwide, the tariffs are costing farmers and businesses $2.4 billion. The tariffs are so high that it just doesn't make financial sense for Mexican buyers to purchase U.S. products, which makes the action by Mexico retaliatory and prohibitive.
A lot of clamor surrounds this issue, from accusations that the U.S. violated the North American Free Trade Agreement by ending the trucking program, to claims that the Teamsters pressured lawmakers into putting a stop to it.
Sen. Patty Murray has picked up the issue and asked President Obama to find a way to remove the tariffs, citing harm to the economy of her home state. She also has met with the Mexican ambassador to the U.S. to discuss the matter. Rep. Doc Hastings has jumped into the fray as well, sending letters to Calderon and Obama.
It's encouraging to see that the issue isn't partisan and that our top lawmakers understand the gravity of the situation.
Some people have cited safety as an issue in allowing Mexican trucks past the vicinity of the immediate border. But as one business representative said, the trucks were probably the most inspected in the world.
The U.S. Department of Transportation says that the issue of unsafe drivers or vehicles is unfounded. In 20,000 trips into the U.S. during the pilot program, only one resulted in an accident.
We've got enough problems when it comes to the U.S./Mexico border. Feeding people on either side of the line shouldn't become yet another issue we can't agree on. Especially when it's hurting our local producers, and in turn our local workers.
Yes, the tariffs are extreme, but it looks like Mexico's leaders might just have NAFTA and evidence from our own DOT on their side.
The tariffs are to make a statement, but the point is taken. We need to demand a long-term resolution to this dispute.
It's good for all parties, providing reliable and year-round access to food and allowing our farmers to make a living by doing what they do: feeding the world.