WASHINGTON - Changes to the Canadian grain grading system were a big win for U.S. agriculture in the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement. But officials in Canada have said that public comments during the negotiations, including some by Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., almost derailed the inclusion of the matter in the final agreement.
The Canadian grain-grading system has long been viewed as unfair by U.S. wheat growers and wheat organizations. While Canadian farmers can haul wheat to the U.S. and be treated the same as U.S. farmers, U.S. farmers heading north of the border see their wheat treated as feed, the lowest grade, even if the wheat is a variety approved in Canada and of a higher milling quality.
The U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, announced late Sept. 30, revises the Canadian wheat grading issue, something cheered by ag groups and politicians alike.
"It's been an issue that has been raised with me by multiple people from North Dakota," David MacNaughton, Canadian ambassador to the U.S., said in a phone interview Thursday, Oct. 4.
MacNaughton said the change was included in the USMCA "in an effort to be constructive and neighborly."
Public negotiating draws fire
Officials with knowledge of the negotiations, however, said the grain grading issue was removed for a time from the agreement in part due to comments Cramer made to Politico Pro Canada in a Sept. 17 piece regarding the negotiations. In the Politico Pro Canada interview, Cramer criticized Canadian officials for lobbying officials in the U.S. on issues like tariffs.
"The Canadian government tried to utilize [longstanding cross-border] relationships to - I don't want to say undermine, necessarily ... but at least to leverage the relationships," Cramer said in an interview with Politico Pro Canada.
Cramer, in an interview Friday, Oct. 5, said he stands by those comments and feels it was inappropriate for Canadian officials to lobby U.S. officials while negotiations were ongoing.
Another Politico Pro Canada story on Sept. 27 quoted MacNaughton as confirming that he confronted Cramer about the NAFTA comments. The article, by reporter Lauren Gardner, relayed the following anecdote:
"(MacNaughton) said he called Cramer because he didn't appreciate things he was saying about NAFTA, and made clear he'd discuss farm-state complaints about Canada's grain-grading regime - 'but not when he was thumbing his nose at us.'
'I keep saying to them: We are nice people, fair and generous people, but we are also hockey players,' MacNaughton said.
'Part of this is a charm offensive, and part of it is, frankly, getting them to pay attention to some of the leverage we have.'"
Cramer said he does not recall speaking to MacNaughton in at least six months but said it is possible that the ambassador's staff had reached out to his staff.
MacNaughton, in the phone interview, said he didn't want to get into issues regarding what had been in and out of the agreement. However, he did confirm there were tensions over people "on both sides" playing out negotiations in public.
"One of the things that was causing problems in the negotiation earlier on was people on both sides using negotiating in public or using rhetoric that caused problems," MacNaughton said. "One of the things that allowed the agreement to come together was the fact that both Minister (Chrystia) Freeland and Ambassador (Robert) Lighthizer agreed - and we stuck to it - not to negotiate in public."
MacNaughton also did not want to address his interaction with Cramer regarding his public comments.
"The congressman and I have had a good relationship in the past. I think from what I've said about public negotiations and rhetoric, you can draw your own conclusions," MacNaughton said. "He and I have gotten along well in the past, and I hope we get along well in the future, wherever he ends up."
Cramer was similarly laudatory toward MacNaughton, noting the ambassador's strong business sense.
Included grain grading in the deal
Several agricultural elements of the agreement were among the last things considered, MacNaughton said, including Canada wanting access to U.S. markets for "sugar, peanut butter and a few other things," and the U.S. wanting access to Canadian markets for dairy, poultry and eggs and wanting to clear up the grain-grading issue.
"It all came down really to the last couple of days when these matters where resolved," MacNaughton said.
Cramer, in an opinion column submitted to publications on Friday, Oct. 5, noted his advocacy on the issue:
"I spoke directly with President (Donald) Trump concerning the biased Canada grain grading issue and wrote a line he used in his Fargo rally speech. I worked closely with U.S. Trade Representative Lighthizer and Chief Agriculture Negotiator (Gregg) Doud to ensure our North Dakota grain growers were relieved of the unfair practice of grading North Dakota grain as sub-par feed."