WASHINGTON, Aug. 20, 2017 - Negotiators wrapped up a first round of talks on revising the North American Free Trade Agreement that included discussions about sanitary and phytosanitary rules important to agricultural trade. 

In a joint statement at the end of the round, the negotiators promised to keep the talks at a “rapid pace,” with the second round set for Sept. 1-5 in Mexico. The talks will move to Canada later in September and return to the United States in October. 

“While a great deal of effort and negotiation will be required in the coming months, Canada, Mexico and the United States are committed to an accelerated and comprehensive negotiation process that will upgrade our agreement and establish 21st century standards to the benefit of our citizens,” the statement said. 

The U.S. negotiators proposed SPS text that closely mirrored provisions of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which were “stronger than we’ve had before,”  said Randy Veach, the president of the Arkansas Farm Bureau who attended as an industry observer during the first round of talks. 

The TPP text, which included protections for trade in biotech crops and was widely praised by U.S. agribusiness interests, said that SPS restrictions imposed by member countries would have to be based on documented and objective scientific evidence that is rationally related to the measure. 

The TPP provisions also said that any risk assessments used to justify restrictions would have to take into account “reasonably available and relevant scientific data, including qualitative and quantitative information.”

Mexico and Canada are both members of the TPP. The United States has withdrawn from the deal so it won't benefit from the provisions unless they are implemented as part of NAFTA and bilateral agreements with other TPP countries.

Chandler Goule, CEO of the National Association of Wheat Growers, said farmers would benefit from having the TPP SPS provisions put in NAFTA. “With the global push to reduce tariffs, non-tariff barriers (particularly SPS barriers) to trade are becoming increasingly common. It is critical that the sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) measures in any agreement are transparent and based on scientific principles," he said.

The high stakes in the negotiations were evident even in sideline discussions. Veach encountered a Mexican trade official who suggested that his country could retaliate against U.S. grain exports if the United States imposed tariffs on Mexico, an apparent reference to the effort by the Trump administration to include an anti-dumping provision sought by Florida tomato producers and other U.S. produce growers. 

“The negotiator from Mexico was giving me a heads up, but kind of threatening,” said Veach. 

Paul Drazek, a partner in the consulting group of DTB Associates and a former trade policy specialist with the American Farm Bureau Federation, said that adding the TPP's SPS provisions to NAFTA would be one of the main achievements for agriculture that could come out of the NAFTA talks. 

However, he also cautioned that Mexico could retaliate against U.S. grain trade if the Trump administration overreaches. U.S. farmers “will see an impact, if it looks like we’re being heavy handed with Mexico. The Mexicans are a proud people. They’re going to look negatively on that.”

The joint statement by the three chief negotiators - U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland and Mexican Economy Secretary Ildefonso Guajardo - said the first round included “conceptual presentations” across the scope of the agreement. “Negotiating groups began work to advance text and agreed to provide additional text, comments or alternate proposals during the next two weeks,” the statement said. 

Jeff Nalley contributed to this report.