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Mexican official calls for more integrated North American market

HOUSTON -- Is there a common market in North America's future with regard to agricultural trade? It is something that Jeffrey Max Jones, Mexico's undersecretary of agriculture, would like to see happen, and it is something he has been working toward for some time.

Mr. Jones told The Produce News during an interview recently at the PMA Fresh Summit, here, that while he was in the Mexican senate from 2000 to 2006, before being appointed to his current post, he was "very much involved in the creation of a North American agri-food marketing integration coalition." It is a vision he has had "for a long time," he said. "The best thing for all of us is to work together and not look at Canada and the U.S. and Mexico as competitors. There are so many complementary things that we can do together, and we need to focus more on those complementary things in terms of our agriculture."

The focus, he said, should be "to work together toward becoming more competitive as a trade region" in order to "participate more strongly in world ag and food markets."

Sanitary and phytosanitary issues are the major issues currently affecting agricultural trade between the United States and Mexico, Mr. Jones noted. "I think one of the main issues on the table is having a very good sanitary and phytosanitary strategy for North American agriculture" by creating "common rules, common public policy in terms of how we solve issues." When problems arise, the concern is how to "contain those types of problems without shutting down trade," he said. "I think trade is very important for North America ... and we need to keep it open and to have common policies so that we can keep it open."

He said that he would like to see the creation of "a broad base" regarding sanitary and phytosanitary issues throughout North America "so that eventually we have an integrated market to the degree that ... going from Chihuahua to Texas or from Chiapas to Minnesota or from Minnesota to Vera Cruz is the same as going from California to Texas."

He believes that such an integration of food and agricultural markets is "the future of the [North American] region and the future of agriculture in the region."

For many years, Mexico "was focused inward in terms of agriculture, and there were a lot of forces that resisted globalization," Mr. Jones said. "That is changing, and Mexico is looking outward." Instead of resisting open markets, the new focus is to look aggressively for those markets. With that in mind, a key part of Mexico's development will be to take food, safety and quality standards that are "recognized in the world community and adapt those standards to our own country," he said. "We want to keep up with standards that are recognized ... on a world basis. The more our agriculture is in line with those standards, the more competitive we will be."

There is a major reorganization underway within SAGARPA, Mexico's department of food and agriculture, under the department's new secretary, Alberto Cardenas, Mr. Jones said. "There is going to be a major shift in programs that we hope will be in place by early next year."

Currently, there are 55 government programs in SAGARPA. "We will reduce [those] to eight programs," he said. Many components of the previous programs will be consolidated into those eight programs, "and we hope to go from 1,500 pages of rules to 50 pages of rules," making the department more simplified, more effective, more streamlined and "much more efficient."

The details of the consolidation "are still not defined," he said. For example, "we understand the importance of promotion," so promotion programs such as those currently being carried out by MexBest will continue, but "it is still very preliminary to say where those will be going."

Continued promotional activities lie "within the context of the new focus that we want to reinforce in SAGARPA," Mr. Jones said. That vision is becoming "much more a demand vision as opposed to the traditional supply vision that agriculture has around the world. We want to be producing those crops that are very clearly defined in terms of demand in world markets." Promotional activities are "definitely a key part of our future vision of creating demand and being where the markets are and knowing what the markets want."

SAGARPA is also in the process of creating an econometric model of agriculture in Mexico "to be able to have a much stronger view of the future" and better understand the effects of public policy on the agricultural sector, thus "creating much more stable long-term public policy," he said. That is something SAGARPA has not done before, he added.

"We would like eventually to link up with U.S. and Canadian models and create an analysis model for North America, so whether the U.S. Congress or the Mexican Congress or the Canadian Parliament are looking at decisions that will affect agriculture, we will look at the impacts on the entire region." In that way, "we will ... be able to create a vision of how we can make North America a very competitive trade block in terms of agriculture," he said.

"We feel very strongly that the U.S. and Canada are our neighbors, and more and more we should look at how to work together" in order to "be competitive in the world market," he said. Public policy will be key to "achieving that unity and that focus in terms of this regional trade block."