• U.S. agriculture secretary urges EU to face tough issues
  • EU says policy reflects `societal concerns apart from science'

In order to reach a free-trade agreement next year, the U.S. and the European Union need to move past side issues to confront the core obstacles impeding an accord, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said.

The EU is sending mixed signals by negotiating a joint trade deal while allowing nations to set individual standards on accepting genetically modified crops, Vilsack said. And while the U.S. welcomes Europe’s latest offer to lower tariffs, the bid covers items like wild boar meat and goose wings, which don’t necessarily appeal to U.S. consumers, he said in an interview last week in Brussels.

The Obama administration has stepped up its outreach in an attempt to give new momentum to the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which would be the largest bilateral trade deal ever negotiated. As both sides struggle to clinch an agreement by the end of 2016, agriculture remains one of the biggest stumbling blocks, with the U.S. asking the EU to relax its policies on genetic technology in farming and the EU seeking to make sure the deal doesn’t hurt local producers.

“I don’t think you’re going to have a TTIP agreement without agriculture being
addressed and dealt with in a serious, comprehensive and substantive way,” Vilsack said.

‘Creative Solutions’

On the heels of Vilsack’s visit to four EU capitals, U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman is visiting London and Brussels this week to break negotiating deadlock and build support.

Vilsack said both sides need to find “creative solutions” for bridging differences on genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, and the EU’s geographical indications system for protecting regional foods. While the U.S. will never accept the EU’s regional protections en masse, there might be a way to protect a smaller number of key products by aligning the U.S. trademark system, he said.

European negotiators have taken a similarly blunt approach. EU Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan said the U.S. can’t expect EU voters to swallow expert recommendations on food safety without acknowledging the range of public debate. From animal welfare to environmental concerns, the EU has set standards that go hand in hand with its competitive position, he said at a Dec. 1 press conference.

“We have societal concerns apart from science that come into play,” Hogan said. “Our consumers are prepared to pay an additional price for their commodities and their products based on these particular obligations.”

Boar Meat

The EU in January agreed to let its national governments go their own way on the cultivation of genetically modified crops in a bid to end years of regulatory gridlock. More policy changes are in the pipeline including a proposal to extend the national options to animal feed, which Vilsack said could make TTIP “much more complicated” if it moves forward.

“On the one hand, the EU basically says to us, we would prefer to be treated as a single entity,” Vilsack said. “If that’s truly what you want to do, then how do you jibe that with the member states now being able to make decisions about GMOs? That’s a problem for us.”

In addition to agriculture, the U.S. and the EU face tough talks over investor-state dispute settlement and also procurement, which will be the focus of a February trade round. Because farm issues are so important to both sides, agriculture may be the last area to come together if the deal moves forward, Vilsack said.

At the same time, he said, recent agreements on beef sales show the possibility of finding common ground. Ireland is building up its beef sales to the U.S., the Netherlands has recently been approved to follow suit and Lithuania also has applied for renewed market access, deals that may create momentum for TTIP talks.

“We’re committed to a trade agreement that works for both sides -- we understand that if a trade agreement only works for one side it’s not a successful agreement,” Vilsack said. As for boar meat and goose wings, “there’s not a great demand for that in the U.S. -- I’m sure it’s a delicacy somewhere.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE