Two key presidents of the European farmer organization Copa Cogeca were in Washington last week stating their case to U.S. farmer counterparts about working together for a better U.S.-European trade deal.
The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership talks are likely to slow down due to the divide in Congress over giving President Barack Obama’s administration trade promotion authority. That was another area the Europeans were trying to gauge in their visit last week.
Copa Cogeca often lobbies or works in Europe as one collective organization, but it is actually two farmer organizations that operate using the same staff.
Albert Jan Maat, president of Copa and a former member of the European Parliament from the Netherlands, said one reality of visiting with congressmen and U.S. farm groups is that elections are a constant challenge to moving trade deals. The Europeans came away feeling it is unlikely the TTIP would be completed before the 2014 elections.
“What we would like to do is know the political situation in Washington,” said Maat. “We got a sense it could be challenging to move ahead before the (fall) elections.”
Maat and others from Copa Cogeca met with leaders from groups such as the American Farm Bureau, National Farmers Union and American Soybean Association, as well as congressmen such as House Ag ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn.
Maat said it’s important for ag leaders from the U.S. and Europe to begin having a conversation about trade barriers from both sides. Otherwise, agriculture could become an afterthought in a final TTIP deal.
“We think we have a lot in common with the American farmer,” Maat said. “We also think it is important for farmers to have a real discussion about agriculture. We want a serious discussion.”
Yet, the European farm leaders want to temper discussion about key issues holding back U.S. access to European markets, notably in areas such as biotechnology.
“We are not principled against GMOs, but we would like to have a practical discussion,” said Christian Pees of France, who is president of Cogeca and chairman of a cooperative on seed breeding. “I have no problem with biotech, but European consumers have deep concerns with the technology.”
Europeans want foods containing ingredients from biotech crops labeled. They are more leery of European farmers choosing to embrace the technology as well. This is in direct conflict with the U.S. when crops such corn, soybeans and sugar beets are overwhelmingly farmed with seeds containing biotech traits.
“If you put biotech at the top of the negotiations, then it blocks the full negotiations,” Pees said. “We tried to explain this to our American counterparts not to block the negotiations on this specific issue.”
Pees acknowledged European yields are lower than in the U.S. for crops such as corn, partly because of the last of biotechnology in the EU.
Pees noted that EU consumers are far more sensitive about production standards, which is one reason EU farmers believe Europe is ahead of the U.S. on standards for sustainable agriculture. This too can become a future battle in the trade talks. “It is important for the European farmers to keep the trust of the consumers,” Pees said.
Still, Maat noted, the U.S. and European economies are connected, and Europe is one of the few major regions in the world where the U.S. carries a significant agricultural trade deficit. The U.S. exported about $10 billion in agricultural products to Europe in 2012, dominated by products such as soybeans, agricultural machinery, nuts and almonds. Collectively, meat products accounted for more than $1 billion.
The U.S. imports about $16.6 billion in agricultural and food items from Europe. Beer and wine account for $5 billion and oils account for about $1.9 billion.
Even though the World Trade Organization has ruled Europe is violating WTO rules by blocking beef treated with growth hormones, Europe continues to block beef from animal treated with hormones. Maat and Pees argued that U.S. producers must respect European standards.
“Increasingly, consumers on both sides of the Atlantic are interested in how their food is produced,” Pees said.
Pees also wants barriers removed that prevent more European fruit from being imported into the U.S. Yet, the Europeans also want the U.S. to accept more European beef and loosen restrictions put in place to protect the U.S. from bovine spongiform encephalopathy.
Last year, the EU authorized the use of lactic acid in bovine carcass treatment. In return, the U.S. should start accepting imports of European beef. Most European countries remain labeled as “controlled risk” countries for BSE despite the overall global decline in the prevalence of the disease. “We still have real problems getting access to the U.S. market for beef,” Maat said.
The European farmers also weren’t pleased with parts of the trade agreement with Canada approved last year because of limited access to sell dairy products or potatoes in Canada. “It’s not a well-balanced deal,” Maat said.
Maat believes both U.S. and European farmers have a common interest in expanding export markets. They expect the TTIP to create the highest standards for international agricultural trade in the world.
“Our standards and the standards of American farming we hope will be the standards worldwide,” Maat said.