U.S. to present dairy demands at next round of NAFTA talks

The U.S. secretary of agriculture says American negotiators will be presenting their dairy demands at the next round of NAFTA talks. The Liberal government is facing pressure from Canadian farmers and the opposition to protect Canada's supply management quota system.

Liberal government under pressure to protect supply management system

American trade negotiators will be presenting their dairy proposals during the next round of NAFTA talks, according to the U.S. agriculture secretary. Canada's supply management system for dairy could be a target. (Catou MacKinnon/CBC)

American negotiators are expected to present their dairy sector demands during the next round of NAFTA talks, which begin in Washington next week.

The U.S. will be looking for increased access to Canada's dairy and poultry markets, according to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue.

"Obviously we need to keep these markets open," Perdue told a public forum organized by the Washington International Trade Association.

"We're going to lay some things on the table in this next round."

The agriculture secretary acknowledged that overall, NAFTA has been particularly good for the U.S. agriculture industry. With that in mind, he said he's warned U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer to tread carefully around the sector. 

"Just don't use us as a weapon in trade negotiations," Perdue said.

Talks disappointing so far, Perdue says

While Perdue is optimistic a deal can be reached, he also gave a blunt assessment of how NAFTA talks have gone so far, from the American perspective. 

"Honestly, we've been somewhat disappointed in the first three rounds, but we think that's the way these things get going," Perdue said.

Chrystia Freeland, left, Robert Lighthizer, centre, and Mexico's Economy Minister Ildefonso Guajardo Villarreal talk together before a dinner at the National Arts Centre last month. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

The comments contradict public statements made by Lighthizer, who applauded the progress that had been made by the end of the third round of talks in Ottawa

Canada has raised concerns about the lack of detail presented by U.S. negotiators on key issues like the dispute resolution process and rules of origin. 

Supply management concerns

Canada and the U.S. have different views on the dairy industry, which will make it a contentious point in negotiations. 

The American team wants the sector brought into the free trade agreement, after farmers in the U.S. loudly complained about Canada's supply management quota system. 

President Donald Trump championed their cause, and accused Canada of having "unfair" dairy rules earlier this year.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland has previously defended Canada's dairy industry, but the opposition says her words have not been strong enough.

"I need to hear that supply management will not be on the table," said NDP trade critic Tracey Ramsey.

"I believe our government will put dairy on the table. We've heard about them talk about the importance of supply management, but haven't heard them say it's unacceptable to open our market to the U.S.," Ramsey said.

Dairy farmers optimistic

The Conservatives are also calling for the minister to use stronger language, but not just around protecting supply management.

"Canadians, workers and our industries want to hear more of a public statement of our priorities," said Erin O'Toole, the Conservative foreign affairs critic. 

"I think we just have to … set the table ahead of negotiations, so that Canadian workers and industries see their sectors reflected as priorities." O'Toole added.

Meanwhile, some dairy farmers appear far more optimistic about the government's promise to protect the current system.

"The prime minister and his cabinet have clearly expressed their support and willingness to defend the dairy industry and supply management, and dairy representatives will attend every round of the renegotiations to ensure that their actions continue to match their words," said Yves Leduc, director of policy and international trade for the Dairy Farmers of Canada.

"Dairy wasn't part of the first NAFTA agreement, and there is no valid new evidence to support that dairy be discussed in this round of discussions."


Katie Simpson is a foreign correspondent with CBC News based in Washington. Prior to joining the team in D.C. she spent six years covering Parliament Hill in Ottawa and nearly a decade covering local and provincial issues in Toronto.