Idaho and potatoes are synonymous for good reason; the Gem State is the nation’s biggest producer of the vegetable. With the fate of NAFTA unknown as negotiators head into an eighth round of talks, the potato industry is monitoring those talks closely.
Maintaining free trade in North America is crucial, says John Keeling, the CEO of the National Potato Council in Washington, D.C.
“Right now we have duty-free access to Mexico for potato and potato products,” he says. “Keeping that access is critically important. If we were to lose that duty-free access, and, say Mexico continued a deal with Canada, we could face a 20 percent tariff differential.”
Potatoes are a $1.2 billion industry in Idaho and provide thousands of jobs. Beyond farms, there are companies like Simplot and Lamb Weston that process the spuds.
Keeling says his organization – and much of the agriculture sector – has a motto when it comes to NAFTA: “Do no harm.” Despite the president’s description of NAFTA as the worst deal in history and his ongoing tough talk, Keeling maintains a positive outlook.
“It is a different style of negotiating,” Keeling says haltingly. “We just have to continue to count on the fact that the president and his team will bring NAFTA back together in a way that continues to work for us because that’s what needs to happen.”
According to Keeling, a fifth of all the nation’s potatoes are exported abroad.
The latest round of NAFTA talks are set to begin early next month in Washington, D.C.
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