A trade treaty between the US and EU, which represents around a third of global trade, should be big news. And rightly so. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Treaty (TTIP) will result in a comprehensive free trade and investment treaty between the European Union and the USA. It is aimed at reducing barriers to trade between the two blocks – such as customs duties, red tape and restrictions on investment. Negotiations started in June 2013 are expected to conclude in 2016. It could have a potentially major effect on our economy, businesses and society.
And it may not. Making a concrete case for why this trade negotiation is so contentious and increasingly problematic is not so easy. In the absence of a negotiating text, when talking of trade negotiations going on behind well closed doors, it is often a case of known unknowns and unknown unknowns.
The politics are getting very messy – and for some EU members states a bit tied up in national politics right now (see some MEPs making a merry with parliament). In the US the ability of the Obama administration to fast track these negotiations is getting mired in politics.
There is much hype about how much economic gain and how many jobs would be created through greater trade between these two giants. The modelling and data these claims are based on have been strongly critiqued.
Yet what is clear that any wide-ranging trade deal between the EU and US could have a significant impact on global food trade. In such deals, food and farm related regulations may be traded away in the negotiations in return for gains in other areas. The real ‘unknown unknowns’. Additionally, given that both climate and chemical related policies (including pesticides and food treatments) are also likely to be affected, the impact on food production and consumption could go far wider.
TTIP – why complacency is not a good idea
Trade negotiations in the era of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade used to be about reducing trade barriers, such as quota and import taxes. Now they are more about the alignment of regulations. And we have, rightly, a strongly regulated food sector.
TTIP cannot change European laws and regulations outright, yet it could create huge pressure to weaken how those rules are applied – and it can chill the development of new rules for consumer protection or public safety. Other similar trade partnerships have shown this. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) which allows free trade between Canada, the US and Mexico for instance – 20 years old last year–weakened labour, environmental and public health standards. It also accelerated an obesity epidemic in Mexico. In the UK the MPs Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) reported on findings of their TTIP enquiry noting that it “could weaken European and UK environmental and public health regulations if laxer US regulations are ‘mutually accepted’ in the deal”. 
Additionally the Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) – a core and hugely contentious element of this and many other trade treaties –provides a means by which corporate interests can override governments – if corporations believe that laws restrict or harm their investments. In essence, companies are given powers to contest – and potentially reverse – government decisions (on health, environment etc.) using international private tribunals. There are many examples where this mechanism has proved effective for them. The EAC noted further that the “prospect of litigation … produces a chilling effect on policy-making” and noted also that there was not a strong case made yet for ISDS whilst many risks in introducing it.
What the TTIP may do to regulations
Trade commissioner Cecilia Malmström insists that the alignment of European and American regulations will not be at the expense of the environment, health, safety or consumer protection.
Sam Lowe of Friends of the Earth highlighted in a 2014 blog three key concerns from his reading of the European Commission draft TTIP chapter on Sanitary and Phytosanitary (food safety, animal health and plant health) issues, leaked to the US based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy:
- Food safety standards jeopardised by conflict of interest – the EU is pushing for a system of ‘mutual recognition’. This means that both parties (the EU and US) would accept each other’s approach so long as it complies with “the importing Party’s appropriate level of protection”. Each may lodge an objection on individual issues, so long as it doesn’t create an “unjustified barrier to trade” … whatever that is.
- Cut in port inspections could lead to a rise in contaminated food imports – The European Commission is planning to reduce port of entry food safety inspections and tests. This increases the probability of contaminated goods slipping through the safety net; and the importing party would be required to accept the exporting party’s judgement despite there being clear safety concerns.
- Importing countries lose power to block suspected unsafe food from entering. Even if the importing party suspected contamination, TTIP would render it unable to ban or restrict imports of the potentially infected product.
Beyond these basics there are other food related concerns in the ‘known unknown’ category. One of the US government’s key objectives is to secure better access to European markets for US-grown GM food. US negotiators, pushed by their biotech industry, see Europe’s labelling rules and safety checks for GM food as barriers to trade. The US was hugely annoyed at the recent EU decision to allow members states to ban GM. It is unclear how this will be used in negotiations. Will the EU give in on GM seeds and food in return for another part of the deal?
Pesticides and chemicals used in the food sector are another potential stumbling block. The European Parliament’s environment committee reports that 82 pesticides used in the US are banned in Europe. The precautionary principle which underpins EU chemical safety rules and licencing – is almost the opposite of the US approach where the onus is on authorities to prove that a chemical is hazardous before imposing any restrictions. Endocrine disrupting chemicals – a group which includes chemicals used in food packaging and some pesticides and which are linked to reproductive disorders and some cancers – has been identified already as TTIP sensitive. Reports of meetings have suggested that proposed new EU bans on use of this group of chemicals have been watered down to accommodate the US position during the TTIP negotiations.
Hormones and chemical washes as well as standards overall (including those affecting livestock welfare) used in the livestock industry are also hugely contentious. European Parliamentarians published a paper outlining concerns that if the EU accepts US standards then EU farmers will be disadvantaged. UK farmers hold mixed views – there is a huge opportunity to get Americans eating our sheep apparently – but they are clearly concerned at having their market flooded.
How trade-treaties influence our climate policies?
It is worth noting how our fellow campaigners in the US see this negotiation. This blog reflects on some of their deep concerns about TTIP. Amongst many, a major concern is how the EU appears to want the US to end its current legal prohibition on crude oil exports and restrictions on natural gas exports. That means more US coal, oil and gas exports that will fuel continued global warming and it “threatens to turn the US into an EU fracking colony”. This would have direct (land and water) and indirect implications for food production.
As FCRN members know well, the IPCC make it clear that climate change is already drastically affecting food security for some and is set to grow in impact globally unless strong and rapid action is agreed at the UNFCCC and at national level. A 2°C rise in temperature will have enormous impacts on agricultural and other types of food production around the world. This will be via heat waves, droughts, loss of farmland and fisheries and flooding. Weather extremes, disease spread, sea level rise, ocean acidification, and salinization will all worsen the extent and severity of food impacts. Agriculture is also central to the lives and livelihoods of billions globally so the social impacts are and will be severe.
With every failure to curb temperature rise, the extent of these impacts become harsher. If TTIP and other such treaties increase the likelihood of more fossil fuels being taken out of the ground we can be clear the food impact is at the very least unhelpful.
So whilst overall it is not possible to say yet how the TTIP could affect the food system, the potential for harmful impacts are evident. The health, cultural, environmental, ethical and economic issues already plaguing our food system are unlikely to be sorted by more unfettered trade, a ‘harmonisation of legislation’ and more corporate control.
Perhaps I am being unduly pessimistic, but positive impacts potentially arising from this agreement – in terms of a truly sustainable, resilient food system for all – have been hard to find. That said, if you know of any – or have any additional details and comment about the agreement and its development, I’d be keen to hear them.