WASHINGTON, July 2, 2014 – After five rounds of negotiations on a trade agreement between the U.S. and the European Union, “to be honest, there has not been a lot of progress,” says Irish Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney. But the obstacles don’t discourage him from seeing hope for eventual agreement on a Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (T-TIP) that might expand Irish food exports.
“It’s the job of people like me to find a way forward,” he told Agri-Pulse during an interview near the end of a four-day trip to meet U.S. policymakers and farm and food industry leaders and experts. “We have an obligation to look for ways to create a stable platform for trade and research programs that can help other parts of the world in time to respond to the competing challenges of climate change, water shortages and potential food shortages.”
Coveney’s hopeful outlook does not cloud his assessment of the obstacles. “It’s my job to be optimistic. I don’t believe people follow pessimists,” he says. But he acknowledges, “There are some fundamental differences of opinion which will be difficult to overcome. But if a Trans-Atlantic trade agreement was easy, we would have had one years ago.”
The most significant sticking points revolve around EU prohibition of “growth promoters and hormones” used in U.S. meat animals, consumer resistance in the EU to biotech crops and food ingredients, and the campaign by European companies to extend protection for “geographical indications” [GIs] to food products, particularly cheeses and meats, that originated in Europe.
Of the three issues, livestock growth promoters may be the most difficult to resolve. “The EU has taken the principled decision quite some time ago that, essentially, medicines are about making animals better when they are sick as opposed to helping them grow faster,” Coveney points out. “The U.S. argument is, ‘This is safe technology, what are you worrying about? Let consumers decide. Put it on the label.’ But it’s not as straightforward as that.”
He is more sanguine about biotechnology. “What we need is approval processes on both sides of the Atlantic that consumers trust and, based on science and based on research, that can allow us to take the argument forward, as opposed to the European side being told by the U.S. that you are backward on biotech and the EU telling the U.S that you don’t understand consumer concerns,” he says. “My understanding is that the U.S. is looking for a decision-making process that will allow decisions quicker, and that’s something that we can work toward.”
Notwithstanding European reservations, Coveney sees biotechnology as a potential contributor to global food security. “I think we should have our minds open to biotechnology,” he says. “I don’t think we should close our eyes to the benefits.” But he sees in the U.S. “an impression that the only way to improve crops and food production is biotech” when other technologies also can contribute and make consumers more comfortable. He would like “to get the overall research agenda into a context where it’s not all about biotech.”
Americans should recognize that “there is a lot of suspicion around the biotech industry amongst consumers in the European Union,” he said, “whether it’s fair or not.” Asked whether EU consumer resistance was not created primarily by scare tactics of activist non-governmental organizations such as Greenpeace, he replied, “No, I think that suspicion comes from consumers.” Some NGOs contribute to that argument, he says. “In some ways, it’s been quite a one-sided argument in the EU. In the U.S., there’s an argument and a counter-argument. In the EU, the case for biotech may not be made as well as in the states, that’s probably true.”
Coveney sees the recent agreement between Canada and Europe on GIs as a template for compromise with the U.S. on protection of food names important to several European countries. “People thought GIs were impossible to overcome when we trying to put a bilateral trade agreement in place with Canada but we got it done,” he said. It was “a very pragmatic, sensible outcome in the end and I hope we can do something similar with the U.S.,” he adds. However, Canada’s agreement to recognize 145 European GIs is not acceptable to the U.S. dairy industry, which advocates moving GIs out of the T-TIP negotiations and into a separate forum.
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