Note: This represents a first-hand account of stakeholder meetings held July 10, 2013.
Last week the United States and the European Union started negotiations on a new free trade agreement known as the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) or Trans-Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (TAFTA). Despite the fact that it is early in negotiations and no formal text has been drafted, based on leaked documents and experience with past free trade agreements, TAFTA or TTIP already has its supporters and critics. (Of note, proponents tend to call it TTIP, likely because they know calling it TAFTA will raise more public concerns given the failure of its predecessor NAFTA. Critics tend to call it TAFTA, in part because they are excluded from the “partnership” between government and big business that it is designed to benefit.) Both sides were invited by the Office of the US Trade Representative (USTR) to two stakeholder engagement events on Wednesday, July 10th. The first was for stakeholders to make 10-minute presentations on their own concerns, hopes, and goals for the agreement, and another was a briefing by two trade negotiators.
Among those “stakeholders” who spoke largely in favor of the agreement, with a few pet provisions thrown onto the wish list, were the US Grains Council, the American Meat Institute, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the American Soybean Association, the American Pistachio Growers, and CropLife America. At the stakeholder presentations, most of these representatives talked about the need to develop export markets because they had excess production and wanted to out compete competitors like Iran in the market, as in the case of pistachio growers, or because they felt they could expand production if markets were available, as in the case of the grain council whose representative said that Europe could not grow enough corn to feed enough cows to meet the growing global demand for meat. In a more unique argument, the Grocery Manufacturers Association representative said their members found the chart of tariffs difficult to read and it should be eliminated. These are companies that have figured out how to make liquid sugar from corn, give foods nearly indefinite shelf-life, and flavor foods chemically, but we may need a new trade agreement because a tariff chart is too difficult to figure out.
CropLife America is a trade group representing the interests of developers, formulators, and distributors of “plant science solutions” and “pest management.” Its members include the likes of Monsanto, Coca-Cola, Dow, Syngenta, and Dupont. Its representative, Doug Nelson, Senior Advisor for Trade, Intellectual Property, and Strategic Issues, perhaps epitomized the big agriculture/big industry arguments for supporting the TTIP. He explained that they were in favor of reducing tariff (i.e. trade taxes) barriers because although tariffs are already low, given the volume of trade by the companies he represents it would still be valuable. However, “the non-tariff barriers are where the real savings would come in.” One example of a non-tariff barrier he gave was the insistence on Europe of conducting their own food safety tests for chemicals in food rather than just accepting the results of US testing. Another key barrier is, of course, Europe’s more cautious approach to GMOs.
A real sticking point is the precautionary principle, a legally-binding approach to policy-setting in the European Union which puts the burden of proof on the party introducing a new chemical, technology, process etc. in the case where there is a question about safety for people or the environment, rather than waiting for evidence to accumulate proving harm. Nelson of CropLife claims the implementation of the precautionary principle will lead to no innovation and that it is an “unscientific” approach.
Monsanto, one of the most prominent and controversial CropLife members, has annual revenue of $11.8 billion and annual profits of $1.6 billion. “Non-tariff barriers” such as quality, health, and safety requirements, labor laws, and food procurement policies are largely in effect to support average citizens in their homes and work places. It is a difficult argument to swallow that CropLife members need more profits, therefore we should eliminate public health and environmental protections, and if average citizens feel they are being harmed by products and processes of these companies, these average citizens must band together and find the resources to prove they are being harmed. But that is the argument that Nelson and others are making.
While supporters talk about what free trade agreements can do for the “economy,” by which they largely mean Wall Street’s bottom line, critics tend to come from a more people-centered perspective. Economic growth by traditional indicators, they argue, is not beneficial if it does not improve the quality of life of most people, allowing them to obtain jobs they can perform safely and that pay them a living wage to allow them to care for themselves and their families.
Kathy Ozer of the National Family Farm Coalition, for example, advocated for a trade policy based on a food sovereignty model, defined as the right of communities to choose where and how their food is produced and what food they consume. She also noted a concern about how TAFTA will affect the nation’s dairy farmers. Dairy farmers have struggled for years to obtain fair pricing policies. A new free trade agreement could limit their ability to benefit from pricing policies and they could further face additional competition from the increased import of milk protein concentrate that processed food manufacturers use in place of milk.
Consumer advocates are also asking to simply be part of the process in a meaningful way. If the negotiations are not transparent and if only top corporate lobbyists serve as advisors, how will the end agreement ever serve the majority of people in the US and Europe? During the trade negotiator briefing, a consumer advocate stood up and said as much. Doug Nelson, who is on a first name basis with the top US trade negotiator, shook his head in apparent disgust.
So what comes next? First, help spread the word. A large number of people still do not know that TAFTA/TTIP as well as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) are being negotiated behind closed doors and do not understand the likely impacts that will adversely affect them. One place to have a direct impact is stopping “Fast Track.” Fast-tracked agreements would require Congress to take a vote without a chance to debate or amend the agreements. A good first step is to tell your members of Congress you do not want either trade agreement to be fast-tracked. This link will provide you an opportunity to write and call your congressional representatives. Stand up and let your voice be heard.