Can we have a civil debate over NAFTA's effects on beef?

Alan Newport, Editor, Beef Producer

October 5, 2016

5 Min Read
Can we have a civil debate over NAFTA's effects on beef?
<p>Beef exports and imports are both important. Cameron Spencer/Getty Images</p>

Just a few days ago, I mentioned to a fellow aggie on his social media post that a candidate for national office is a new-world-order puppet, which history is teaching us is a dangerous thing.

I thought his response uninformed and childish: "And how many herds of beef do you plan on personally eating when President Donald Putin Trump cancels NAFTA and other trade agreements, Alan?"

Commonly I ignore such reposts, but I believe there are three extremely important lessons to be learned from this exchange, so I'm going to outline them.

First, this person has no understanding how to debate an issue. Instead of stating facts and telling me he is worried that Donald Trump will threaten possible gains we've made from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), he attacked me and said I would essentially carry the burden for not voting for his candidate. I did not endorse any candidate in my brief statement, which makes his response all the more ridiculous.

In fact, he demonstrates the base problem with all public debate these days: People no longer know how to have fact-based discussions. This is not limited to younger people. Instead of saying something logical, such they fear the outcome but don't have enough facts, or listing the facts they know, they attack and blame. Some tell outright lies in support of their positions.

The solution to this problem is well-summed by my friend who was on his high school's debate team. "Anytime you attack the opponent personally, you lose," he says.

I found some valuable advice on conducting debates/discussions at this site explaining the rules for high school debate teams in California, and a lot can be learned from reading Plato and Aristotle. In this season of presidential elections, I think it imperative to reiterate that civility should be the hallmark of any intelligent discussion.

Second, it sounded to me like the fellow needs to understand that presidents can do all the trade negotiations they want, but all trade treaties must be approved by the Senate. This is specifically stated in Article II, Section 2, Clause 2 of the Constitution.

Third, I have been looking at NAFTA for some time and recently found what seems a statistically valid study of its pros and cons from USDA's Economic Research Service. It's called "NAFTA at 20: North America’s Free-Trade Area and Its Impact on Agriculture."

After the silly exchange with my acquaintance the other day, I decided to see if I could tell whether U.S. beef producers have gained from NAFTA or not. After all, it was sold to us as a great improvement in trade that would benefit the citizens of all three nations.

I cannot attest to the last statement, but my tally looks negative for beef producers.

There exist four tables in the appendixes which break out a great number of foods, livestock and other items individually. I pulled my numbers from those.

My method of tally was simple. Increased exports from the U.S. = positive. Increased imports to the U.S. = negative. Alternately, increased imports by Canada or Mexico = positive; and increased exports from Canada or Mexico = negative. I'm sure I missed some things not labeled as beef products, such as tallow or cosmetics, but that's too difficult to chase down from the numbers I have available.

Pre- and post-NAFTA annual average data for cattle and calves

                                    1991-93           2011-13           change             gain/loss

US to Canada             $36 m              $33 m              -8%                  ($3 m)

Canada to US             $802 m            $1,055 m         32%                 $253 m

US to Mexico              $115 m            $26 m              -77%                ($89 m)

Mexico to US              $377 m            $614 m            63%                 $237 m

In exchange of U.S. cattle and calves, this amounts to $582 million net loss in trade with Canada and Mexico.


Pre- and post-NAFTA annual average data for beef and veal

                                    1991-93           2011-13           change             gain/loss

US to Canada             $363 m            $1,100 m         %203               $737 m

Canada to US             $283 m            $826 m            %192               $543 m

US to Mexico              $171 m            $692 m            %305               $521 m

Mexico to US              $2 m                $460 m            %22,876          $458 m

In beef and veal trade, the U.S. had a net gain of $257 million in trade with Canada and Mexico.


In addition, there exist some beef categories in the appendixes which are not universal throughout, so I'm including them in a secondary count, but not in my tables.

  • U.S. beef imports from Canada listed "bovine hides and skins, whole," as decreased from $65 million to $43 million, which is a $22 million gain for the U.S. It also listed "beef variety meats" increasing from $15 million to $77 million, so that's a loss of $62 million for us. The U.S. net loss for these two categories, then, is $40 million from NAFTA.

  • The report on U.S. exports to Mexico also includes the category "beef variety meats," which increased from $48 million to $219 million, so that increases U.S. benefits from NAFTA by $171 million. It also includes whole bovine hides, which decreased from $110 million to $66 million, a $44 million loss. Together, these two groups increase the U.S. take because of NAFTA by $127 million.

  • There was a category of U.S. imports from Mexico called "parings and similar waste of raw hides or skins, or glue stock not elsewhere specified or included." This went from $1 million to $151 million. Therefore, we need to delete $150 million from U.S. benefits/gains.

The running tally, in millions, would look like this:

-$582 +$257 -$40 +$127 -$150 = (-$388 million)

When I tabulated only products specifically listed as cattle and beef then, my tally for NAFTA is the U.S. loses to its neighbors by $388 million per year.

And that's all I have to say about that.

Alan Newport is editor of Beef Producer and BEEF Vet, sister publications of BEEF.

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About the Author(s)

Alan Newport

Editor, Beef Producer

Alan Newport is editor of Beef Producer, a national magazine with editorial content specifically targeted at beef production for Farm Progress’s 17 state and regional farm publications. Beef Producer appears as an insert in these magazines for readers with 50 head or more of beef cattle. Newport lives in north-central Oklahoma and travels the U.S. to meet producers and to chase down the latest and best information about the beef industry.

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