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You have to hand it to the American agriculture industry: It has great lobbyists and public relations flacks. Just look at the job they’ve done convincing the Trump administration to pay special attention to the farm sector’s concerns when renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Mexico and Canada. And as made clear by The Wall Street Journal today, they’re keeping the pressure on in an effort to convince the president that the United States doesn’t hold such overwhelming leverage in these talks with Mexico in particular.

No one can blame ag from doing its job. But maybe the press could do a somewhat better job of providing valuable context, as the Journal article today simply didn’t?

It’s indeed noteworthy, as The Journal‘s Jacob Bunge reported, that American farm exports to Mexico have fallen so far this year, especially given that Mexico is the third largest foreign market for these goods. Moreover, it does look like the drop stems at least partly from Mexico’s search for alternatives to U.S. suppliers in order to create NAFTA revamp bargaining chips.

But a broader examination of bilateral trade flows shows that, however important, agriculture doesn’t deserve pride of place in America’s trade negotiations – with Mexico or any other countries. First of all, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, last year, agriculture (along with forestry, fishing, and hunting) comprised 0.9 percent of the American economy on a value-added basis. Manufacturing represented 11.7 percent.

Last year, moreover, manufactures exports (of $1.05127 trillion) topped agricultural exports ($134.88 billion) by a factor of nearly eight. It’s true that agriculture ran a trade surplus and manufacturing an immense deficit. But the former – about $20 billion – was hardly an economic game-changer, and that was especially so considering the nearly $862 billion scale of the latter.

U.S.-Mexico trade tells a similar story: According to The Journal, 2016 saw America sell $18 billion worth of agricultural products to Mexico. Manufacturing exports were about eight times as great: just over $143 billion.

But there are some big problems with these manufacturing exports. For example, they’re much more than offset by U.S. manufactures imports from Mexico. In fact, since 2009 (the year the current recovery began), this bilateral trade deficit has risen more than twice as fast (by 125 percent) than that with China (52.56 percent).

Moreover, Trump is right about much of this imbalance resulting from NAFTA-induced American production offshoring to Mexico that aims to sell back into the United States. That’s had much to do with the 1990-2013 drop in the United States’ share of North American light vehicle production from 78 to 64 percent, and the rise in Mexico’s share from six to 19 percent. That’s also had much to do with the more than tripling of the U.S. bilateral trade deficit in autos and light trucks since NAFTA’s signing.

In fact, in the first eleven months of 2016, Mexico exported nearly 80 percent of the 3.22 million autos it produced, and fully 77 percent of them were sent north of the border.

As a result, auto industry leaders have plainly stated that without the unfettered access NAFTA provides to the American market, and without the incentives to produce in super-cheap and largely unregulated Mexico created by the treaty, most of their auto investment in Mexico would lose its raison d’etre.

No one is calling for neglecting America’s farm sector during the NAFTA renegotiation. But the outsized role played by manufacturing, and manufacturing trade deficits in regional trade, along with manufacturing’s historic role as the United States’ productivity growth and innovation leader, couldn’t make clearer that letting ag export fears dominate this economic diplomacy would be a classic case of letting the tail wag the dog.

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