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Todd Staples (right), commissioner of the Texas Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services, with Vincente Fox, former president of Mexico, at the 20th annual Tri-National Agricultural Accord in Grapevine, TX. (Photo by Jeremy Fuchs)

The Tri-National Agricultural Accord between the Canada, Mexico and the United States predates the North American Free Trade Agreement by three years, and while it has never grabbed headlines in the same manner as that much-discussed alignment, it continues to be a powerful force for resolving differences and advancing common causes among the participating nations.

The 20th annual accord conference was held Nov. 15-18 in Grapevine, TX, with a focus on finding ways to leverage the power of the world’s largest trade bloc to better feed its peoples and, increasingly, the rest of the world.

Todd Staples, commissioner of the Texas Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services, hosted the 2011 conference, which rotates annually from country to country.

“The world population is growing by 1 million people every five days,” Commissioner Staples told The Produce News Nov. 18 following the conclusion of the four-day summit. “North American farmers and ranchers produce the best and most affordable food supply in the world, and we know the benefits that consumers and citizens receive from free and fair trade. This can only be accomplished through an open dialogue with leaders from all three countries. Canada, the U.S. and Mexico represent only 6 percent of the world’s population yet are responsible for 44 percent of the world’s corn production and 26 percent of the world’s cattle and beef production. North American growers produced 603 pounds of fruits and vegetables in 2009 for every man, woman and child on the continent. With an open dialogue and an emphasis on research and trade policies that encourage investment and continued production, we have a bright future.”

In bi- and tri-lateral sessions, the conference explored future opportunities for enhancing trade, protecting food supply and creating jobs. Commissioners, secretaries, ministers and directors of agriculture from every state and province in the United States, Canada and Mexico collaborated on trade and development issues; their findings and recommendations will be forwarded to policymakers in each country as a basis for future trade discussions and legislation.

This year’s keynote speaker was former Mexico President Vicente Fox, who told attendees, “We must go beyond NAFTA. If Canada, the United States and Mexico wish to be leaders in the promotion of free trade, democracy and human rights, we must work together. North America can compete with any country or bloc of countries, but only if the three independent nations truly work as partners.”

The theme of this year’s conference was “Neighbors in Trade — Partners in Jobs,” and the participants were quick to note that internal differences between bloc members must be addressed before it can present a united front to the rest of the world.

“We’re in flat-out amazing times in agriculture with the demand for our products that we have around the world and between us as well,” Bill Northey, Iowa agriculture secretary and president of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, told The Produce News. “The connectivity of our three countries has really grown over the last 20 years as well, with producers on both sides of the borders buying things from each other. In Iowa, we get livestock coming from both directions and we certainly send grain both directions, and other products. There are so many interconnections; when you look at the productive capacity, we’re trying to leverage some of our influence with trading partners in other parts of the world, certainly Asia and Europe.”

The annual conference gives leaders from each country an opportunity to address irritants and a chance to foresee future conflict.

“NAFTA was about sharing a good flow of trade between ourselves and among ourselves, but also talking about how we as a North American bloc can compete with the rest of the world. We’ve done a lot to try to resolve differences. There will always be trade irritants, but the majority of trade is undisputed, we‘ve got mechanisms in place to try and resolve those differences, and what we talked about here was some of the differences and how do we get past those,” Alanna Koch, deputy minister of the Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture, told The Produce News. “We’ve got a specific work plan to address some of these differences and each other’s roles. New food-safety modernization laws in the U.S.: What does that mean for Canada and Mexico, how do we make sure we deliver what the U.S. needs but is the least trade impacting for your two largest trading partners?”

Added Mr. Northey, “We get very used to operating within our own systems and rules. Sometimes we understand very clearly what’s happening between us and sometimes we don’t. One of the values of a meeting like this is to be able to sit down and talk about the differences — understanding those barriers and what can change. Sometimes it doesn’t take much to change those. One of the things we take out of this meeting is we’ll have a couple of areas where we’ll work together to communicate with our respective federal leaders on technology or pesticides or labeling, then we’ll work on getting that information to decision makers in our federal agencies that will have a chance to address those issues because we had a chance to sit around and talk.”

A major focus at this year’s conference was making sure the rest of the world plays by the same rules as North America. Will emerging agricultural technology in China be ecologically sound? Will Japan implement fair and reciprocal agreements with its trading partners in the West?

“We are the most productive area of the world. We know the world needs food and we need to make sure we capitalize on that and make sure we are viewed as the place to go for food supply,” Ms. Koch said. “We want to make sure we have the right kind of regulations around the world focused on science-based rules. What can we do to make sure we influence world trading rules and access new markets and put our production into places that help feed them? I don’t know that we’ve come as far as we could. We’re well on the path. As three nations, we’ve done a good job trying to reduce the trade barriers between ourselves and among ourselves — homogenization of pesticide regulations, for instance. The three of us now can truly act as a trading bloc, a fully integrated North American market — we are absolutely interdependent on one another.”

Added Commissioner Staples, “The fact that this is the 20th Tri-National Accord shows the dedication of a generation of leadership; those of us here today were not here in the beginning. It shows a continental understanding about keeping a dialogue open so we can all benefit. Every country has their strengths, and every country has ways that we can partner together to leverage our strengths, and I truly think that’s one of the tangible outcomes of these types of conferences: We find relationships to enhance our economies, resulting in jobs. It’s a competitive world we live in. Ensuring our neighbors are successful means that we will be successful.”