The food and farm fallout from a possible Trump trade war with Mexico

A variety of Mexican food products ready for export to the U.S.
A variety of Mexican food products ready for export to the U.S.

By Christina Cooke / Civil Eats

The menu at Centro, a popular Mexican restaurant in downtown Raleigh, N.C., relies on avocados, lemons, limes, and cheeses like queso fresco and cotija imported from Mexico. Since election day, Centro owner and chef Angela Salamanca, like many restaurateurs across the country, has grown increasingly nervous as she’s watched the Trump administration pursue a hostile stance toward Mexico on issues related to trade.

“… If there’s a tax imposed on Mexican products, we’ll be in serious trouble, and not just for our food, for our Mezcal, too. We would have to reconfigure our business. What would our offering be if we couldn’t have access to the necessities of Mexican cuisine?” Salamanca said.

Behind Canada, Mexico is the largest supplier of agricultural goods to the United States, selling $21 billion worth of food to Americans in 2015, including $4.8 billion in fresh vegetables, $4.3 billion in other fresh fruit, $2.7 billion in wine and beer, and $1.4 billion in processed fruit and vegetables.

Because U.S. agriculture is so intertwined with the Mexican economy, the U.S. has a lot to lose in a trade war. As do American eaters: A full 93 percent of the Hass avocadoes in the U.S. come from Mexico, as well as 71 percent of the tomatoes and 15 percent of the sugar. Additionally, the U.S. imports 79 percent of its neighbor’s exported tequila.

Nevertheless, the Trump administration is taking an aggressive stance toward its southern neighbor.

Days after his inauguration, the Trump team floated the idea of a 20 percent tax on imports from Mexico as a way to pay for the wall. House Republicans have proposed a different idea, a “border-adjustment” tax on imports.

The president has also voiced his intention to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta). If he can’t renegotiate the agreement to get a “better deal” for the American worker, the president has threatened to withdraw completely.

Ben Lilliston, the director of corporate strategies and climate change with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, points out that the administration, which still does not have a Department of Agriculture head in place, is not paying much attention to the needs of farmers as it thinks about trade policy.

“When you go after manufacturing, agriculture and food get hit in the crossfire of that trade fight,” Lilliston said. And, he adds, “Agriculture is probably the most sensitive topic in any trade negotiation, because it’s about food security.”

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