The European Union – and Scotland’s – food sector could be damaged if the free trade agreement currently being negotiated with the US government is finalised, according to consumer organisations and economists.
The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) aims to boost economic growth by facilitating trade between the EU and US. The head of the European Commission office in Edinburgh, Graham Blythe, explained: “The idea behind TTIP is to broaden a free trade area from the 28 member states to the United States of America, by slashing taxes and regulating standards between the two blocks. The deal will involve a wide range of different sectors such as food, textiles, IT, pharmaceutical and energy.
“The European Commission is doing the negotiations on TTIP on behalf of the European Union, but it is for the member states and the European Parliament to agree to TTIP or not.”
The agreement is meeting strong opposition from non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and consumer bodies across all Europe. The common fear is that TTIP will lower EU standards and key regulations in areas such as food safety and agriculture. As Jane Herbstritt, a Scottish campaigns assistant at the UK NGO “Global Justice Now”, said: “The thing about TTIP and agriculture is that US agri-business is a big lobby and they consider TTIP to be a good opportunity for them to get into EU market.
“Our concern is about lowering EU standards for things like GM (genetically-modified) crops, food standards in general and regarding chemicals, which are much higher than they are in the US.”
Consumer welfare is another concerning issue, according to Paul Hare, Professor Emeritus in economics at Heriot-Watt University: “There is more concern, in the EU, with consumers’ welfare than there is in the United States. The US has more relaxed regulations when it comes to GM food, for instance. From my understanding, American food industry regulations allow also a lot more antibiotics to be used in meat production than we allow in Europe.
“Many Europeans might be a bit nervous about unrestricted imports of American beef – because our standards are different – and that’s an area which I would also feel uncomfortable about, because I think their practices are actually quite dangerous both to animal health and to human health.”
Beyond the importing of GM food and the use of antibiotics, a further threat coming from the agreement could be the increased competition that EU farmers would face, according to Ms Herbstritt.
“ If US agro-business has a foot in the market they can obviously make things on a bigger scale and make them much cheaper than we can, and it makes it just harder to compete overall,” she said.
Referring to Scotland, she added: “We are also concerned about how TTIP might affect local procurement policy.
“For example, the Scottish Government and local councils should be able to support small farmers and local business through public procurement, but if TTIP comes through and US agro-business says this is unfair on them, it would be much harder for local governments to show a bias towards local farmers and local business as well.”
Scotland’s food and drink sector, for example, contributes significantly to the national economy, employing over 100,000 people and with an annual turnover of around £14bn, a 2013 Scottish government survey revealed.
Some Scottish organisations supporting organic food believe that TTIP will hurt the Scottish sustainable food sector, especially with a possible #Brexit from the EU. Pete Ritchie, executive director at Nourish Scotland organisation, explains: “If Europe sticks together then the EU will be able to face down the demands of big corporations, in whatever version of TTIP is created.
“However, if the UK comes out of Europe it’s already likely that we’ll go for looser regulation, and it would be harder for Scotland to hold the line on many areas, such as GM food.”
Scottish government has indeed a clear position on GM food, not permitting for example the growing of GM crops. In late 2015, Scotland Rural Affairs Secretary, Richard Lochhead, confirmed the Scottish Government’s intention to take advantage of new EU rules allowing countries to opt out of growing EU-authorised GM crops.
Nourish Scotland executive director talked also about the country of origin labelling issue: an EU policy ensuring products’ quality standards, by indicating where the product is produced.
“The country of origin labelling is interesting, with many food products in the EU already driving towards labelling country of origin, while the US is going the other way.
“On some of these issues, collective consumer power does make a difference and multiple retailers will tend to go for country of origin labelling as people want to see it. But, there will be a strong secondary market in unlabelled produce,” he said.
Consumers at bay
However, the last word on TTIP is up to governments, as Prof Hare pointed out: “Sometimes governments are doing the right thing and thinking about what is good for consumers, what is safe, what is clean, what is right, but some other times, I am afraid, they think of what is right for producers and the trouble is that what is good for producers is not necessarily good for consumers.
“The problem is that within the negotiations, consumer groups have almost no influence and producer groups lobby quite actively, so there is a tendency in this agreement for producer groups to dominate the negotiations, which is not right and ideal for us consumers. The hope is that governments will somehow protect the consumers’ interests, but you can’t always be sure that they will.”
Discussions on TTIP are still ongoing. On January 26, EU Trade Commissioner, Cecilia Malmström, spoke at the Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue (TACD), a forum of US and EU consumer organisations, outlining the alleged benefits of TTIP, such as high quality goods and services, good jobs, and higher quality regulation. However, on the same day, in the UK many campaigned against TTIP’s lack of transparency and further actions are expected in the coming months.
To know more about TTIP (all relevant publications of the European Commission)
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