Trade is a hot topic in agriculture. A third of what farmers raise in the United States goes overseas and anything that can firm up those relationships to keep the business rolling is a good thing. The United States is starting the conversation on trade with European Union leaders for a new Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership - called T-TIP - and today Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack discussed the challenges and opportunities ahead.
"I just had a working lunch with 29 ag ministers and representatives from EU state and countries. It was an opportunity for frank discussion and for me to express to all member states that we have much in common," Vilsack notes.
That commonality is a starting point in trade discussions with Europe where there are some significant roadblocks to an agreement. Vilsack conducted a media call after the lunch in Brussels and noted he expressed that the meeting is historic in nature, but also that ag has got to be a significant part of any final T-TIP agreement. "Absent a strong commitment to agriculture it would be difficult for Congress to pass T-TIP," Vilsack says.
The challenges he outlined included tariffs, non-tariff barriers, phytosanitary issues, geographic indicators, biotech, cloning and other issues. Top two on that list would involve geographic indicators and biotech.
There's a movement underway for geographic indicators to carry the weight of what would be a trademark in the United States. Vilsack notes today's working lunch involved ministers making remarks and offering a wide range of comments. "The geographic indicators issue came up almost in everyone's presentation made from the EU side," he says.
Vilsack has already started the conversation noting that he suggested that there was an appreciation in the United States and EU for the fact that there are opportunities to promote high-value products and that the US has a trademark system that provides protection for those who create an identity or brand that they believe carries value.
Under the concept of geographic indicators Cheddar must come from the Cheddar area of England. The challenge is that there is a generic standard for the production of cheddar cheese and the final product is always called cheddar. For the GI concept, there are a range of other areas where this could have an impact on high-quality U.S. exports.
"There is no question that there needs to be serious negotiation about this," Vilsack says. He notes there should also be an understanding from the EU that the US will not accept the notion "that they could unilaterally impose a restriction on a generic term. We need to find a way to protect the value without limiting market access," he notes.
Biotech crops are another hot topic. The EU will import some for animal feeds, but there are restrictions on other uses and no EU farmer can grow genetically enhanced crops. This has created some significan trade issues. In addition, the EU is working on a system that would allow member countries to "opt-out" of imports and use of GMOs on a country-by-country basis.
"We didn't discuss the opt out provision recently enacted specifically," Vilsack told media on the call. "We talked more in general terms about the importance from our perspective of the need for coexistence for various production processes. There is no safety concern."
Vilsack notes that science should be the guide in these issues. He also adds that its important for states that opt out that they do not convey "anything to do with the unsafety of these products. There are hundreds of scientific studies to suggest otherwise. Regardless how they approach this, it's not about the safety of the product."
Given all the negatives - geographic indicators, lack of agreement on GMOs - how does Vilsack see T-TIP for the future? "I'm optimistic that at the end of the day producers in the U.S. and EU will see long-term trade agreements solidify relationships," he notes.
Vilsack says, however, that there is a growing recognition of the need for increased communication and some level of "educating the general public and policy makers" to help people understand the value of the trade agreement and the need for trade.
The process is just getting started. "It's tricky, it's hard and that's why it takes a long time for these agreements to come to fruition," Vilsack observes. "The long-term benefit for the economy and the country is enhanced, strong bilateral arrangements."