Plucking a big bone in free-trade talks: food

President Obama's ambitious goal for free-trade pacts with Europe and Asia depends on solving emotional disputes over food and agriculture. Leaders need to deal with people's deep concerns about what they eat, farming culture, and culinary identity.

A French farmer shovels feed for his dairy cows in Seranvillers Forenville.The EU's agricultural spending accounts for 39 percent of total EU spending, with France taking nearly nearly 20 percent of the direct payments to farmers which it most wants to safeguard.

Among all the goals for President Obama’s second term, two of the most ambitious are giant deals on free trade – one with Asia and the other with the European Union. If he is to succeed in either one, he will need to solve the most prickly issue in such negotiations: food.

On Tuesday, Mr. Obama announced his support for achieving a trade pact with the 27-member EU by 2014. He also wants to wrap up talks for a proposed pact called the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which now includes 11 nations. Such agreements are aimed at reviving economic growth.

In both negotiations, thorny disputes over agriculture could either weaken the result or derail a deal. That’s because issues over food arouse strong emotions about survival, safety, local community, eco-sustainability, political power, and even cultural and spiritual identity. In many trade pacts, food is often given “special” status, which usually means an allowance for protectionism.

Even within countries or regional bodies like the EU, food remains divisive. The recent scandal in Europe over horse meat in beef products has reinforced a public distrust of government controls over food. In the United States, the “local food” movement has run up against safety regulations, spawning a “food sovereignty” campaign.

Obama himself was so wary of the EU relenting on its barriers to food imports that he insisted on a sign of good faith before agreeing to formal talks. The EU finally lifted its import bans on live pigs and beef carcasses cleaned with lactic acid.

Subsidies and other props for farmers are the largest expense in the EU budget. And EU tariffs on food imports average about 18 percent. During the talks with the US, France is expected to defend its artisanal products, such as cheese, that mark part of the French identity.

The EU is also sensitive to genetically modified food, and often uses a “precautionary principle” to ban food imports if scientific studies are inconclusive about a product’s safety. In the US, too, the dairy and sugar industries will probably defend the supports they now enjoy from government. US food tariffs range from 4 to 9 percent. 

“The agricultural-based disputes are rooted in different approaches to regulation, as well as different social preferences,” wrote Raymond Ahearn in a Congressional Research Service report last year.

As more countries become tied to the global supply chain, they must come to terms with being increasingly dependent on other nations for food. And as wealthy nations debate free trade among themselves, they must be aware of how their food policies affect the estimated 870 million people in the world who are hungry or the rural farmers in poor nations who can’t compete with food imports.

Obama’s hopes for a free-trade pact with Asia depend to a large degree on whether Japan agrees to join the talks. For now, a deep cultural affinity among the Japanese toward their rice-growing culture, combined with the political power of a dwindling number of rice farmers, has prevented the world’s third-largest economy from joining the talks.

China has not been invited to these talks. In fact, it is trying to form a non-US trade zone within Asia. It also has a new sensitivity toward food security. It has begun a new program to promote self-sufficiency in grains.

All these disputes over food reflect deep concerns about defining community, establishing trust across borders, and ensuring the well-being of others in the world. Defining the issues along those broader lines, trade negotiators might be able to better find common ground and persuade various food-related interest groups to compromise.

“We are focused on the future," Karel De Gucht, the EU trade commissioner, told the Financial Times. "This is not a negotiation that has as a prime aim to find ... a solution for chlorine chicken. What we want to do is make an internal market between the US and the EU.”

Obama’s leadership will be essential to bring the major economies together on these difficult food issues. Solving them will enhance trade and boost growth in general. He has a lot on his plate until 2014.

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