Mexico’s Supreme Court is scheduled to rule Wednesday on whether the country’s government has the authority to fully open Mexican borders to fresh U.S. potatoes, potentially settling a major U.S. trade irritation going back about two decades.

U.S. potato farmers will be watching closely because a ruling in their favor could triple the amount of potatoes they send to Mexico, according to the National Potato Council.

The U.S. exports about $60 million worth of fresh spuds across the southern border every year despite a major Mexican trade barrier. That could rise as high as $200 million per year if the court rules to give U.S. potatoes full access to the Mexican market.

Mexico agreed about 20 years ago to open its borders to U.S. potatoes in return for the U.S. opening its border to Mexican avocados, says NPC CEO Kam Quarles. The U.S. followed through on its promise, but Mexico did not.

After about 10 years, Mexico’s government – held back by the powerful potato lobby there – agreed to allow for importation of U.S. fresh potatoes, but only partially. U.S. potatoes can cross the Mexican border, but only by 26 kilometers.

“They really slow-rolled the whole process,” Quarles tells Agri-Pulse. “After more than a decade of negotiations, the Mexican government grudgingly agreed to allow in fresh potatoes. That was a kind of way for it to have it both ways when they addressed the issue.”

But the 26-kilometer rule did not satisfy either side. It allows the U.S. to export tens of millions of dollars’ worth of potatoes, but the geographical boundary excludes the biggest markets like Mexico City, says Quarles. And Mexican potato farmers were still fighting to push the U.S. spuds out of the country completely.

“The domestic potato industry essentially sued their own government,” Quarles said. “There were numerous cases filed all across the country.”

Many of those cases were rejected but some were successful in lower courts, and it's those cases that are being ruled on this week. The unifying theme of those suits being considered by the five-member Supreme Court, Quarles says, is that Mexican government agencies should not be allowed to have the authority to approve potatoes or any other ag commodity for importation.

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Unlike its counterpart in the U.S., the Mexican Supreme Court issues a draft ruling in cases before the actual vote takes place. And the draft ruling released last week is spurring optimism for U.S. potato farmers because it rejects the claims of the Mexican potato farmers and affirms that the Mexican government has the authority to open the border completely to U.S. potatoes – something the government was already preparing to do.

The draft was issued by one of the five justices and does not assure the outcome of the vote.

“Assuming the full Mexican Supreme Court affirms this draft ruling, the Mexican government will be empowered to provide U.S. fresh potatoes with full access immediately,” said Quarles. “We encourage them to take that step immediately and continue the process of normalizing trade between the two countries.”

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