Florida Delegation Wants ITC to Investigate How Mexico’s Trade Policies Hurt Strawberry, Bell Pepper Growers

At the end of last week, members of the Florida congressional delegation sent letters to Lisa Barton, the secretary to the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC), on Mexico’s agricultural trade practices, accusing them of being unfair.

Republicans in the Florida delegation sent a letter to Barton on the matter. Democrats representing the Sunshine State also sent Barton a letter on it.

Florida’s two U.S. senatorsRepublicans Marco Rubio and Rick Scott–were joined by Florida Republican U.S. Reps. Gus Bilirakis, Vern Buchanan, Kat Cammack, Mario Diaz-Balart, Byron Donalds, Neal Dunn, Scott Franklin, Matt Gaetz, Carlos Giminez, Brian Mast, Bill Posey, John Rutherford, Maria Elvira Salazar, Greg Steube, Michael Waltz and Dan Webster. In the letter, the Florida Republicans called for the ITC to investigate how Mexico’s trade policies are hurting strawberry and bell pepper growers in the Sunshine State.

“As representatives of Florida’s farming community, we write with regard to the decision made by the International Trade Commission (ITC) and federal agency partners to address concerns of increased Mexican imports of seasonal and perishable fruits and vegetables. For years, Florida growers have suffered disproportionate economic harm due to unfairly traded Mexican imports.  The trading practices employed are a substantial cause of serious injury to Florida’s industry, placing the future of this critical domestic food supplier and its economic contributions to the state and nation at risk,” the Florida Republicans wrote.

“In an effort to provide meaningful relief to U.S. fruit and vegetable producers suffering from unfair trade practices, on September 1, 2020, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) and the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Commerce issued a comprehensive Report and Plan.  The interagency report revealed that the dramatic increase in U.S. imports of fresh fruits and vegetables from Mexico is undeniable. In 1993, the United States imported approximately $1.2 billion of fresh fruits and vegetables from Mexico.  By 2019, imports had increased 1,025 percent to $13.5 billion.’  Pursuant to the plan, on November 3, 2020, the USTR called on the ITC to initiate investigations to monitor and investigate imports of strawberries and bell peppers, which could enable an expedited 201 global safeguard investigation under Section 202(b) of the Trade Act of 1974,” they continued.

“Florida produce growers have witnessed a significant influx of imports from Mexico in recent years, experiencing a 550 percent increase between 2000 and 2019.  Often these imports are at or below the cost of production, resulting in $1.89 to $3.78 billion in total economic losses for Florida’s economy.  Perhaps more shocking, our state’s producers have lost between $1.1 and $2.2 billion in sales, leading to tens of thousands of lost jobs.  With the 2020/2021 season underway, growers report such practices are continuing with import prices often at a fraction of the U.S. break-even price, challenging the survival of generations of Florida farmers,” the Florida Republicans added.

“In the winter months, Florida has a legacy of providing the vast majority of domestically produced strawberries.  However, due to unabated Mexican strawberry imports, Florida growers have suffered hundreds of millions of dollars in lost sales and since 2000, faced a staggering 1,654 percent expansion of Mexican berries.  As the Interagency Report highlighted, “U.S. imports of strawberries from Mexico have increased from roughly $44 million in 2001 to more than $840 million in 2019,” eclipsing our state as the dominant strawberry supplier for our nation. Florida’s market share loss for strawberries accelerated from 2016 through 2020, as the total volume of imported strawberries from Mexico increased by 47 percent,” they continued.

“Similarly, the Administration’s Report noted U.S. imports of Mexican bell peppers have more than doubled from 2014 to 2019.  Due to the influx of unfairly traded Mexican imports, Florida, once the dominant supplier of peppers in the U.S. markets, is down to 14 percent of market share, with Mexico commanding 73 percent of the U.S. market, resulting in significant harm to the state’s pepper producers. Florida growers’ bell pepper market share declined an astounding 57.5 percent from the 2016 to 2020 harvest season,” they wrote. “As the data reveals, the significant influx of imports in recent years has dramatically affected Florida’s strawberry and pepper industries. Furthermore, these unfair trade prices and Mexican government support programs have caused subsequent loss of jobs and economic capabilities. Growers need access to a level playing field in the marketplace. As the COVID-19 public health crisis has demonstrated, it is imperative we ensure a strong and sustainable food supply within our nation.

“The situation is truly dire. If a solution is not provided and fair trade practices are not restored, Florida’s vital produce industries, and our ability to provide a nutritious source of domestic food supply, will be lost. We applaud the ITC and encourage your effort to work with our state’s producers and relevant agencies to monitor and investigate imports of strawberries and bell peppers to provide meaningful relief to Florida growers,” the Florida Republicans wrote in conclusion.

On the other side of the aisle, on Friday, Democrats in the Florida delegation also wrote Barton on the matter, asking the ITC to investigate Mexico’s trade policies and how they are impacting strawberry and bell pepper growers in the state. U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., the dean of the Florida delegation, led the letter which was also signed by Florida Democratic U.S. Reps. Kathy Castor, Charlie Crist, Val Demings, Ted Deutch, Lois Frankel, Al Lawson, Stephanie Murphy, Darren Soto, Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Frederica Wilson.

“We write on behalf of the agriculture communities we represent in the State of Florida to offer our support for Investigations No. 332-581 and No. 332-582, Monitoring of Fresh or Chilled Strawberries and Bell Peppers, respectively, initiated by the International Trade Commission (ITC) and its federal agency partners. We anticipate these meaningful efforts will help address concerns of unfair trade practices employed by Mexico that have a substantial negative impact on U.S. seasonal and perishable fruit and vegetable producers. Florida’s agriculture industry is an essential supplier of domestic goods, and the trading practices employed are a substantial cause of serious injury to Florida’s industry, putting their livelihoods and a crucial part of our national food supply chain at risk for failure by no fault of their own,” the Florida Democrats wrote.

“The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) and the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Commerce published an interagency report on September 1, 2020 outlining a devastating reality of the duress experienced by domestic produce farmers due to injurious trade practices. In recognition of the extraordinary growth of importation of Mexico’s fresh fruits and vegetables into the U.S., the report noted that in 1993, the United States imported approximately $1.2 billion of fresh fruits and vegetables from Mexico. By 2019, imports had increased 1,025 percent to $13.5 billion.’ Additionally, the USTR released a plan to support American producers of seasonal fruits and vegetables that included opening an investigation with the ITC to monitor and examine strawberry and bell pepper imports that could aid in an expedited 201 global safeguard investigation under Section 202(b) of the Trade Act of 1974,” they continued.

“While the ITC restricts the period of examination to 2016-2020, it is crucial to note that Florida’s growers have long been working to compete with imports that are unlawfully subsidized by the Mexican government. In fact, there was a 551 percent influx of Mexican produce imported between 2000-2019, bolstered by government programs that drive prices down below domestic producers’ break-even cost and caused an immense loss of sales between $1.1 and $2.2 billion. Florida’s market share loss for strawberries accelerated between 2016-2020, as the total annual volume of imported strawberries from Mexico increased by 47 percent. This equates to 258 jobs no longer supported, $1.6 million in decreased indirect tax revenue, and $31.7 million in overall negative economic impact.  Likewise, Florida’s bell pepper market share also declined an astounding 57.5 percent during the period, resulting in 700 lost jobs, $4.3 million in reduced indirect tax revenue, and $86.1 million in overall negative economic impact. Of course, these losses ripple out to surrounding communities, costing tens of thousands of jobs, as well as a total loss of $1.89 to $3.78 billion for our state’s economy. This season, Florida’s family farms in particular face dire conditions as they continue to incur costs that cannot be met if they are forced to match the prices of the produce imported from competitors in Mexico,” the Florida Democrats wrote.

“These patterns, a substantial cause of serious injury, are clear across seasonal and perishable commodities, especially against the backdrop of Florida’s long-held position as the nation’s provider of strawberries in the winter, and a top bell pepper producer. Mexico’s stunning takeover of our nation’s market share for both of these commodities is clear; over almost two decades import of Mexico’s berries grew by over 1600 percent and almost $800 million, and today Mexican imports make up 73 percent of the U.S. bell pepper market. This growth has not been based on fair markets or true competition, and drastically impacted Florida’s farmers, economy, and U.S. consumer access to domestically-grown fresh berries and peppers. It is incumbent on us as their representatives in foreign trade negotiations that we not only work to protect a fair international market, but also protect our nation’s food supply chain. Our current health and economic crises require us to recognize and redress the harm experienced by U.S. farmers to prevent a failure to deliver basic produce in future crises and the loss of generations of work growing Florida’s agriculture sector,” they added.

“We cannot afford to lose an industry so inherently connected to the stability and growth of not just Florida and its communities, but also to our nation’s reliable food supply. The ITC’s fact finding investigation is an encouraging step to deliver significant relief to Florida’s farmers and we are in full, resounding support. Thank you for your time and your full and fair consideration of our comments, consistent with applicable statutes and regulations,” the Florida Democrats wrote in conclusion.

 

Reach Kevin Derby at kevin.derby@floridadaily.com.

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