WASHINGTON, May 25, 2016 - When most farm groups and government officials talk about the benefits of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, cuts to foreign tariffs get most of the attention. But it’s the biotechnology section of the deal that may have a more lasting impact, according to agriculture and biotech sector representatives.
Genetically modified seed has become the foundation for much of the grain and oilseed production in the U.S., but international trade is often fraught with pitfalls because of the complex web of different acceptance levels and approval processes.
It’s a situation that the trade pact could begin to ameliorate by bringing countries together on how to address their differences on biotechnology approvals and prevent major trade disruptions, said Floyd Gaibler, the director of trade policy and biotechnology for the U.S. Grains Council.
The TPP is the first trade pact entered into by the U.S. to include a biotechnology section and, although it doesn’t include tolerance levels for unapproved biotech traits, it sets the stage for that possibility in the future, said Max Fisher, director of economics and government relations for the National Grain and Feed Association.
“We’d like for there to be some kind of threshold where some of these unapproved traits could be present and not cause an entire shipment to be rejected,” Fisher said. “Right now with a lot of these countries (the threshold) is zero. You basically can’t have any traces.”
That’s why the TPP language is so important, said Gaibler. It gets the U.S. and trading partners to acknowledge the possibility of a low-level presence, or LLP, of an unapproved biotech trait and then sets up procedures on how to deal with it.
“It encourages everyone in this 12-member deal to adopt a low level presence (threshold), but if you don’t, here’s a procedure to handle it so you can allow the shipment to occur,” Gaibler said.
The U.S. Grains Council went further in a letter that it sent jointly with the National Corn Growers Association to the U.S. International Trade Commission in February.
“Since it is not possible to achieve zero tolerance, identification and implementation of a LLP maximum concentration value will be helpful,” the groups said. “Appropriate and transparent regulatory procedures will allow the U.S. planting-seed industry to continue progressing in adoption of biotechnology and advanced agriculture in key emerging TPP markets.”
But when negotiators wrote the biotech section of the TPP, they were looking far beyond just trade between the U.S., Japan, Vietnam, Australia, Canada, Mexico, Brunei, Singapore, Chile, New Zealand, Peru and Malaysia.
“TPP is designed to allow other countries from both Asia and the Americas to join the agreement after it is ratified and entered into force by the original 12 member countries,” the NGFA said in a separate letter to the ITC. “This offers the ability to include the lion’s share of global trade under a comprehensive, 21st century trade agreement. Many countries have already signaled interest including South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Thailand, Colombia, among others.”
While China has not officially signaled its interest in joining the TPP, it’s the country that a lot of farm groups hope will eventually join. It’s also the country the U.S. has had the most trouble with when it comes to shipping genetically modified commodities.
“If China came on to be a TPP member at some point they would need to adhere and recognize that they need to take these provisions on biotechnology into account,” Gaibler said.
In November 2013, when China claimed it found traces of Syngenta’s Viptera corn – a biotech trait that had been approved in the U.S. and elsewhere, but not China – it turned out to be one of the costliest cases of an LLP occurrence ever for the U.S., said NGFA’s Fisher. Over the following two years China rejected about 2 million tons of U.S. corn after repeatedly claiming to find minute levels of Viptera.
If a biotech agreement had existed between the U.S. and China like the one proposed in the TPP, Fisher said, there likely would have been no trade disruption.
Not all farm groups are excited about the TPP biotech provisions. The Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance, a nonprofit organization that represents small producers and local food systems, told the ITC in a letter that it’s worried that the integrity of biotech approvals would be undercut by the trade pact.
“The TPP will allow agribusiness and biotech companies to use international tribunals to challenge governments that test for genetically engineered contamination, have a meaningful pre-approval process for new genetically engineered crops, or even just require labeling of foods containing genetically engineered ingredients,” the group said in the letter dated Feb. 10.
Even state labeling laws would be threatened, the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance said: “Under these provisions, domestic laws such as those of Vermont could be challenged in international tribunals rather than being judged by the standards of the U.S. Constitution in U.S. courts.”
But what the Alliance calls a tribunal, the TPP describes as a much more benign “working group.” It essentially provides a forum for member countries to exchange “information on issues, including on actual and proposed laws, regulations and policies, related to the trade of products of modern biotechnology” as well as “further enhance cooperation between two or more parties, when there is mutual interest, related to the trade of products of modern biotechnology.”
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