Another tomato war threatened
Friday, August 24, 2012
It must be nice, living in a swing state. Politicians flit around pitching woo, trying to lure your electoral votes. They hold events, give speeches in all the right places, meet all the right people, tell you your prosperity is vital, and they are willing to help.
It can go to your head. It happens, when important people tell you how important you are. You can’t blame people for taking advantage of the opportunity. As a result, we in the conspicuously non-swinging state of Washington had better keep an eye on the tomatoes.
Tomatoes make good political footballs, especially in Florida, where growing them is a major industry. The trouble is Florida tomatoes are vulnerable to competition. Because of climate, and for marketing considerations, Sunshine State tomatoes are often picked green, then “ripened” artificially with ethylene gas. They turn a reddish orange that can look good on a bun, even if they don’t taste like much of anything. This worked fine when the United States was essentially a closed market, especially in winter when Florida had things to itself. Then came the North American Free Trade Agreement. People in Mexico could grow tomatoes that actually turned red without assistance, that could be ripened on the vine or in greenhouses, that tasted better than nothing, and could be shipped in mass quantities to an open American market and sold at reasonable prices. American consumers were appreciative, and bought them, and still eat them in sufficient quantity to upset the Florida people, who did the natural thing and went to the government for help. They said Mexicans were “dumping” their tomatoes on the American market, deliberately selling at low prices in a clever plot to destroy them. The Commerce Department agreed. Instead of imposing a tariff, they offered a “suspension agreement,” in which the U.S. government would set the minimum price for Mexican tomatoes to “provide strong relief to the tomato growers in Florida ...” Coincidentally, the deal was signed in October, 1996, a month before President Clinton’s re-election. It turns out the deal worked for Mexico, too, which does well in the American market and doesn’t mind being told not to sell too low.
As another presidential election approaches, coincidentally I’m sure, the Florida tomato people are back. They have asked the federal government to drop the “suspension agreement,” presumably so they can renew dumping allegations against Mexico and seek punitive tariffs. The Commerce Department is studying the matter. “If the Obama administration goes along and kills the 16-year-old agreement, the president may win a few votes in a key swing state. But it would come at the cost of far higher prices for American consumers, the loss of U.S. jobs, and possibly a trade war with Mexico,” wrote Jim Kolbe of Arizona in The Wall Street Journal. “If these Florida growers are successful in reigniting this trade war all over again, it will have an enormous negative impact on industries on both sides of the border and prices will increase significantly for U.S. consumers,” said Rosario Beltran of CAADES Sinaloa, representing Mexican shippers.
Trade war talk should scare us. Trade is a two-way street. Washington apples go in while tomatoes go out. Tomatoes are Mexico’s largest agricultural export, and Mexico is the largest export market for Washington apples. When Mexico is upset, apples can get nailed. It has happened before. We are just recovering from the last bashing during the politicized Mexican truck tussle. Jim Archer of Northwest Fruit Exporters in Yakima said the Mexican market for apples is operating smoothly now, with no sign of trouble. He has heard little about the tomato tiff, but in any event that’s a separate issue. It shouldn’t affect apples at all, if rules are followed.
But, you never know. Tomatoes, trucks, and now tomatoes again. Keep an eye on this one. The election approaches.
Tracy Warner’s column appears Thursdays and Fridays. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 665-1163.
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