U.S. potato growers hope that this could be the year they are allowed to ship fresh potatoes into all of Mexico, which would be a $120 million opportunity.
The domestic spud industry, with help from members of Congress, is using a pending Asia-Pacific trade agreement as leverage to try to accomplish that.
A market access agreement signed by the two nations in 2003 allowed for the shipment of fresh U.S. potatoes within a 26-kilometer zone near the border. It called for increasing access to the five northern Mexico states the next year and for Mexico to consider granting full access by 2005.
That hasn't happened and potato growers are hopeful Mexico's desire to be included in the Trans-Pacific Partnership can be used to gain full access. The TPP includes Australia, Brunei, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam and the U.S.
Mexico is asking to be included but must receive the approval of all negotiating countries to be added.
In response to the U.S. industry's concerns, nine U.S. senators from major potato-producing states sent a letter to U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk and USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack urging them to use the TPP as leverage to solve the issue.
That has created real hope on this side of the border that full access is just around the corner. The National Potato Council estimates full access to Mexico would provide a $150 million market potential for U.S. growers, up from the current $30 million.
"We really do believe there is a lot of momentum behind getting this done and the TPP negotiations really are the impetus at this point," said Mark Szymanski, NPC's director of public relations.
"This is a huge new opportunity for (Mexico) and if they want to get in on that, they need to honor their previous commitments, and one of their major previous commitments is the full-market access commitment they singed in 2003," he added.
According to U.S. potato industry officials, Mexico has used artificial pest and sanitary issues to block full access.
Matt Harris, Washington State Potato Commission director of governmental affairs, said an independent panel of scientific experts recently found there are no risks associated with shipping U.S. potatoes to Mexico.
"It's turning into a political move by (Mexico) to keep our potatoes out," he said. "Their domestic market just doesn't want to compete with us."
Idaho growers are salivating at the prospect of opening up the entire country because they believe they could own a sizable share of that market.
According to Idaho Potato Commission officials, when Idaho first started selling potatoes within the 26K zone six years ago, consumers there preferred Mexican potatoes over Idaho's Russet potato by an 80-20 margin. Today, it's the other way around.
"We're getting very close and we're very hopeful that they're going to be able to push the ball over the goal," said Pat Kole, vice president of legal and government affairs for the IPC.
SOURCE: Sean Ellis, Capital Press