Vilsack Addresses Trade Issues With EU

(DTN) Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is in Europe this week to reiterate the Obama administration's policy on agricultural trade talks, but no significant breakthrough is expected on positions that gridlock the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.

Vilsack held a conference call Monday morning with reporters following a "working lunch" with 28 agricultural ministers and representatives from the EU. The lunch involved a "frank discussion" about what is common in U.S. and European agriculture, he said. Vilsack said he sought to emphasize that broader market access for agriculture must be a significant part of the ultimate deal on the U.S.-European free trade agreement.

"I was very candid with my colleagues that, absent a real strong commitment to agriculture in this trade agreement, it would be very difficult for Congress to be able to get the votes necessary to pass TTIP," Vilsack said.

The lunch included an extended conversation on biotechnology, geographic indicators, cloning, food-safety treatments and regulatory issues. The secretary said the U.S. and Europe have a common goal to expand agricultural markets. That common goal also requires a common language that bases decisions on science. The secretary then noted there must be a commitment to science.

"Letting science dictate and direct how we solve these problems will allow consumers to have choices and be able to make decisions they feel best for themselves and allow producers in our country and their countries to also have options and choices," he said.

While the Obama administration may advocate a science-based approach, European leaders appear to rally around other arguments. Just last week, EU officials advanced a proposal that would allow individual countries to "opt out" of EU licensing standards for cultivation because of social concerns. The EU Parliament could take up the issue later this year. Vilsack said his talk with fellow ag ministers didn't specifically discuss the opt-out provision.

"I think there are obviously strong feelings about the issue over here in Europe," he said. "We haven't specifically taken a position on the opt-out provision, but I would say that at the end of the day, it's always going to be about what science tells us and what science directs in terms of making sure it doesn't convey a sense of anything having to do with safety or any problems associated with biotechnology because there are hundreds of scientific studies to suggest otherwise."

Another brewing issue concerns geographical indicators. U.S. officials have pushed back on European proposals to protect certain names of foods such as popular meats and cheeses. Europe argues products such as parmesan or feta deserve special status and protection from imports. GIs are also being suggested for meat such as bologna. U.S. Senators and others have complained about such gratuitous use of geographical indicators.

Vilsack said geographical indicators came up in almost every presentation made by his European counterparts during the lunch. The secretary pointed to the differences between a trademark or patent on a product that distinguishes it and "a system that essentially seeks to exclude the use of what have been treated up to this point as relatively generic terms."

"There is no question there is going to have to be a serious negotiation about this," Vilsack said. "I think there was an understanding from the EU's perspective; they understood we were not accepting of that notion that they could somehow unilaterally impose a restriction on a generic term."

Vilsack said he suggested there should be a way to "find a sweet spot" to protect value without limiting market access. The agreement between the EU and Canada doesn't fit well with the U.S. trademark system, he said.

"I'm optimistic at the end of the day that both producers in the United States and Europe will understand in the long, long term, trade agreements cement relationships, solidify relationships and, if they are structured properly, end up benefiting all sides," Vilsack said.

The secretary said in his conference call he will have a series of meetings over the next couple of days in Brussels and France. He also told reporters he doesn't think a change in the leadership of the EU Commission will affect the timeframe for talks.

Vilsack added that he thinks there needs to be some level of education for the public to share more information without going into details that would disclose negotiating positions. "It's tricky. It's hard, which is why it takes a long time for these agreements to come to fruition," he said.

U.S. agricultural groups are paying close attention to any talks surrounding TTIP. Don Shawcroft, president of the Colorado Farm Bureau, said in a phone interview he was following the secretary's comments on Monday. Shawcroft said he hoped the secretary is successful in pushing a more science-based approach to trade with the EU. While the issue did not come up in the secretary's call on Monday, Shawcroft said Colorado Farm Bureau members want to see TTIP deal with the EU ban on hormone treatments for beef that has largely limited U.S. beef exports to Europe for two decades.

"That is something I think is an opportunity in these trade negotiations, recognizing that it is a negotiation," Shawcroft said. "It's not going to be purely easy. It's a difficult conversation to have, but hopefully both sides see benefits."

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