Mexico eyes more banana, pork exports to China as NAFTA talks stall

MEXICO CITY, May 23 (Reuters) - A Mexican trade delegation traveling to China this week expects to wrap up talks that will allow more banana, pork and sorghum exports to the Asian giant, a top Mexican agriculture trade official said on Wednesday.

The talks, which center on health and safety protocols, come at a sensitive time for Mexico as negotiations over an updated North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with the United States and Canada remain stalled, with major implications for future farm trade between the neighbors.

Raul Urteaga, head of international trade for Mexico’s agriculture ministry, was traveling to Beijing on Wednesday to conclude the negotiations, which he said were prompted by a shake-up among Chinese health and safety officials.

Urteaga, a member of Mexico’s original NAFTA negotiating team in the 1990s, said the outreach to China is unrelated to trade tensions with the United States.

“Regardless of trade uncertainties with other trading partners, Mexico has embarked in a market diversification process,” he said, adding that he expects agriculture exports to the U.S. market to also grow in the next few years.

“We are confident that we will reach a successful conclusion of the NAFTA process,” he said.

Once the new protocols are finalized - in the “next few weeks” - Mexico will be able to expand banana exports to between $40 million and $45 million annually during the next three years, while new pork product exports will reach around $20 million during the first year, said Urteaga.

Sorghum shipments are also expected to grow, but Urteaga said he could not provide a projection.

He said Mexico also expects to start exports of avocados produced in Jalisco state. Shipments from top-producing Michoacan state are already allowed.

Last year, Mexico exported about $326 million in agriculture products to China, according to agriculture ministry data.

Mexico’s overall agriculture exports totaled more than $32 billion in 2017, with U.S. buyers accounting for 82 percent, according to central bank data.

Urtega added that China is also interested in possible white corn imports from Mexico, since it is one of the few producers of white corn that does not use genetically modified organisms.

Additional reporting by Adriana Barrera; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Steve Orlofsky