Corn could be bargaining chip in U.S.-Mexico trade talks

Much of the corn that Mexico consumes comes from the United States, making it America’s top agricultural export to its southern neighbor.

MEXICO CITY — From the hundreds of millions of tortillas consumed every year to the countless tons of corn-enriched feed that fattens livestock and poultry, corn is perhaps Mexico’s most important agricultural commodity, one at the center of its life and culture.

Now corn has taken on a new role — as a powerful lever for Mexican officials in the runup to talks over NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement.

The reason: Much of the corn that Mexico consumes comes from the United States, making it America’s top agricultural export to its southern neighbor. And though President Donald Trump appears to be pulling back from his vows to completely overhaul NAFTA, Mexico has taken his threats to heart and has begun flexing its own muscle.

The Mexican government is exploring buying its corn elsewhere — including Argentina or Brazil — as well as increasing domestic production. In a fit of political pique, a Mexican senator even submitted a bill to eliminate corn purchases from the U.S. within three years.

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U.S. corn shipments to Mexico totaled nearly $2.6 billion last year and are part of an elaborate agricultural trade relationship between the two nations that has helped to interlace their economies. But though the corn business is a tiny fraction of the overall $525 billion in annual trade between the two countries, it has gained outsize importance and become something of a symbol for the nations’ economic codependence.

The prospect that the U.S. could lose its largest foreign market for corn and other key products has shaken farming communities throughout the American Midwest, where corn production is a vital part of the economy. The threat is particularly unsettling for many residents of the Corn Belt because much of the region voted overwhelmingly for Trump in the presidential election.

“If we lose Mexico as a customer, it will be absolutely devastating to the ag economy,” said Philip Gordon, 68, who grows corn, soybeans and wheat on a farm in Saline, Michigan, that has been in his family for 140 years.

Gordon said he planned to call Trump at the White House “and remind him we need trade.”

A Trump administration document that circulated on Capitol Hill last week appeared to present a more moderate approach to NAFTA negotiations, seeking to preserve much of the existing agreement and recognizing the interconnectedness of the two nations’ economies, cultures and histories.

Trump has repeatedly asserted that Mexico has been the big winner under NAFTA, and the U.S. the loser. But many leaders in the American agriculture industry say that NAFTA has been a boon for farmers in the U.S., particularly because it opened up new foreign markets and helped to expand agricultural exports more…

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