Trading away meat standards?
The TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) trade deal between the EU and the US is taking place behind closed doors. Olga Kikou asks whether the focus on trade will sidestep other important considerations including food safety, labelling, animal welfare and the future of small farms?
Over the second half of the past century, the drive to increase agricultural production led to the intensification of the entire agriculture system in Europe, the U.S. and other countries. Similarly, trade relations among countries expanded at a global scale with trade deals being secured to the benefit of just a few countries and multi-national corporations.
Currently, discussions for a trade agreement between the European Union and the United States are taking place. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) talks started in July 2013. These negotiations are considered a top priority for both regions as they involve the two largest trading partners in the world and make up 40% of global economic output. According to both sides, the aim is to align domestic standards and create similar regulations, opening the markets on investment, services and public procurement.
Under the claims of encouraging economic growth on both sides of the Atlantic and extending the ability to buy and sell goods and services, industry lobby groups have been pressing for this trade agreement, as a wide range of companies in the agribusiness sector expect to profit from the elimination of trade barriers. The EU has actively sought to get these negotiations off the ground arguing that the EU GDP would grow by 0.5% annually and 400,000 new jobs would be created across the region, and hoping to gain massive support for the trade deal. We are being told that consumers will benefit as the agreement will bring an extra 545€ in disposable income for a family of four living in the EU. Although these claims have been disputed, at the heart of the debate lies the question as to whether TTIP is opening the door for the industry to lower standards.
A series of important questions come to mind: While it is evident that TTIP will be of benefit to some businesses, is this going to be achieved at the expense of EU citizens? Will there be a sacrifice of regulations for the hypothetical economic growth which might result? The negotiators talk about convergence, but will convergence mean using the lowest standards existing in both areas? After decades of continuous efforts and successes in setting minimum standards in place in the EU, will there be an overturn of what has been achieved? And in the case of agriculture, will the focus on trade sidestep other important considerations regarding food safety, proper labelling and animal welfare?
The Commission is trying to ease fears by stating that the EU will not lower standards while at the same time admitting that the U.S. will not back down on its demands. There is uncertainty as to whether the European Commission knows where we’re heading. But how much do citizens know about these negotiations and their potential to compromise their interests? The lack of transparency is very worrying. Little is known about the process as official discussions are taking place behind closed doors while businesses are involved in backdoor agreements. While we are given assurances that TTIP will not undermine standards or compromise EU regulations and that the level of protection in the areas of environment, consumer health and safety will be maintained, we are not told how the convergence of the systems of these two economic areas will take place. Assurances have also been given that the precautionary principle (an important principle which protects environment and health) will not be up for negotiation.
With regard to our current food system, it seems that what is actually at stake is the model of a more extensive, small scale agriculture which could be pushed aside in favour of bigger intensive systems that could produce food on a more massive scale, satisfying the interests of agribusiness corporations. Although both the U.S. and the EU employ widespread intensive farming practices, still, in some European countries, the farming sector is not very intensified and many small family farms are scattered in the rural landscape. Despite a gradual decrease in the number of farms in both regions, there are still an estimated 12 million farms in the EU and 2 million farms in the U.S. How will small farms be affected? Will local, small scale agriculture survive? Current trends show that smaller farms will be put out of business with further concentration and control of the food system among few corporations. Rural areas will suffer and environmental degradation is likely to become more widespread. There’s also fear that the market will be swamped with cheaper imports produced with no regard to animal welfare.
Furthermore, it is reasonable to expect that existing problems related to biodiversity loss, soil fertility, water scarcity, climate change, environmental pollution, all linked to industrial agriculture and food production, will worsen. Along with the more intensive production model which is being promoted, issues like cloning and genetically modified animals, chemical carcass rinses, food and feed additives, pesticide maximum residue levels, growth promoters/hormones, antibiotics, GM crops, less stringent labelling rules and nano-materials would enter the EU agenda and compromise any extensive small scale farming still in existence.
More specifically, in the EU, public opposition against GMOs has resulted in the cultivation of only two crops (one GM maize and one GM potato), in addition to imported GM animal feed. In the U.S., GM crops are widely cultivated and they are generally recognized as safe by the US Food and Drug Administration. There is pressure on the EU from U.S. agribusiness to ease restrictions, speed up authorization procedures and facilitate the introduction of GM products.
Cloning has been another controversial issue that has raised ethical concerns in addition to food safety, animal health and welfare. The technology is relatively recent and the vast majority of cloning attempts fail. Cloned animals suffer from cardiovascular and musculoskeletal problems which should be a good enough reason to reject the use of this technology. Cloning however is permitted in the U.S. and products from cloned animals are available in the U.S. market. Many EU Member States are not welcoming the prospect of food from clones and their offspring entering the market. There is an ongoing debate as the European Commission will shortly present a legislative proposal on cloning.
Antimicrobial resistance has become a very important issue. The widespread use of antibiotics in industrial animal agriculture as growth promoters and for disease prevention has been linked to the development of antimicrobial resistance in humans. Many agencies are calling for serious restrictions in their use. In the EU it is against the law to give animals drugs for growth promotion purposes.
Many beef cattle in the US are fattened with the aid of steroid hormone implants though the EU banned their use over twenty years ago. The controversial genetically engineered version of the dairy cow growth hormone Bovine somatotrophin (rBST) is also used in the US, whilst the EU decided rightly to ban it. The EU has stood against such practices because of animal welfare reasons and potential human health implications. However it is unclear how U.S. agribusiness corporations will respond since these practices are pervasive in their agriculture system.
Chemical carcass treatments, including chlorine rinses, are also a common procedure in the U.S., used to reduce contamination of meat with certain bacteria. These are banned in the EU. Feed additives also authorized for use in the U.S. increase the rate at which feed is converted into muscle, with many side effects. Ractopamine for example is used in the U.S. as a growth promoter but has been banned in the EU.
Labelling rules ought to give consumers more information about their food but they could be challenged as they are considered discriminatory for trade. There are various labelling schemes already in place or under consideration, which provide information even on animal welfare issues (such as the egg labelling scheme which informs consumers on the production system used, i.e. eggs from hens in cages, barns or free range). U.S. labelling information focuses on nutrient content mostly. There is uncertainty as to which rules will be accepted and whether labelling schemes will be mandatory or voluntary.
Another important consideration regarding the different production systems utilized in the two areas might be even more significant. The U.S. has been the strongest proponent of a very intensive model of animal agriculture. Factory farming is exceedingly prevalent there and most animal products come from animals in factory farms. In the EU, intensive agriculture has gradually replaced small-scale farming but there has been growing opposition from farmers and the public. Lobbying and campaigning on behalf of many organizations has focused on moving Europe away from factory farming.
The European Union has enacted legislation for the protection of animals on-farm, during transport and at slaughter. Currently, three major bans are in force and were imposed because the systems were considered detrimental to animal welfare: veal crates, conventional battery cages for hens, and there is also a partial sow stall ban. In addition, a major breakthrough with the potential to transform legislation regarding animals has been the reference in the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union to the recognition of animals as sentient beings, along with the obligation to pay full regard to their welfare. Overall, despite major concerns about existing laws and serious enforcement issues the EU is far ahead of other countries, including the U.S., and further progress is expected. We should be extremely concerned that we will be entering into an agreement with a country with poor animal welfare standards that also vary from State to State.
Any potential agreement between the two areas will include an examination of existing procurement policies and programs. Such programs are currently in force in both the U.S. and the EU, i.e. the Farm to School program in the U.S. provides school meals that reach millions of students across the country. Through purchasing decisions, these programs promote healthier locally grown foods helping local farmers, supporting economic growth at the local level and educating citizens on a more sustainable food system. It is exactly these programs that have been targeted as discriminatory and both sides are pursuing the elimination of such “localization barriers to trade” through the TTIP.
This deregulatory approach is likely to permit the entry of products that are not permitted at present and might compromise human health, the environment and the wellbeing of animals. In the case of mutual recognition of standards, which means accepting products from both sides without regard given to the production systems, the party with the lowest level of standards will succeed in having its products accepted in the wider market. It can be expected that products that are considered safe in one region will be permitted for sale in the other without necessarily satisfying the standards there.
Even more controversial is the inclusion of the Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) in the negotiations. This provision would give the right to corporations to sue governments if rules undermine their expected profits. This would directly undermine any legislation and achievements in food standards as some measures could be considered discriminatory for U.S. companies and a barrier to trade. In a sense, it would threaten state rules and proposed improvements in legislation and have an impact on the current model of the agriculture and food system. Furthermore, it could potentially disrupt the legislation process and halt new legislative proposals because of fear they might conflict with the interests and profits of private companies.
These negotiations do not question any of the endemic problems of the existing food system but they might actually make it worse by challenging existing standards and, given these limitations, remove any possibility for future improvements. It is urgent that civil society groups raise awareness of the potential outcome of these negotiations and mobilize citizens over the impact of the trade agreement on their lives. It is necessary to establish cooperation with civil society organizations and individuals on both sides of the Atlantic. We must defend what we have achieved so far regarding environmental and animal welfare reforms, consumer interests, health, working standards and stand firm against any weakening of EU legislation. We should be able to build on our standards, not take them apart.
Already, efforts to unite forces and develop a common course of action are taking place in different sectors. For example, the leading animal welfare organizations in the EU and U.S. have formed a platform to strengthen cooperation and achieve higher standards of welfare. Through the Transatlantic Animal Welfare Council (TAWC) they are actively monitoring the negotiation process in order to make sure that EU regulations on animal welfare are not compromised. Animal welfare is one of the areas expected to be adversely affected.
It will certainly be an uphill battle to challenge trade agreements and turn around the existing trend towards intensification. However, during times of threat, conditions give rise to opportunities. And, it might be the case that we are presented with an opportunity here. An opportunity which will bring to the forefront not only the dangers coming out of this negotiation process but also the faulty makeup of the entire food system as it is currently in place and challenge the intensification process of agriculture as well as our food consumption patterns.
In this respect, our work ahead can be carried on as follows:
- On the trade negotiation process, our efforts should focus on mobilizing civil society, informing citizens and involving everyone through existing channels to re-examine the priorities of the talks and, if necessary, prevent this deal from being signed. Increasingly, more signs point to this direction.
- At the same time, we should use the momentum created from the reactions to these negotiations to address broader issues focusing on the interests of citizens rather than corporations and creating the right conditions for a shift to a truly sustainable agriculture and food system.
Finally, more attention should be paid to the fact that this trade deal can have far reaching effects extending to the rest of the world since it opens the door for similar trade agreements elsewhere, setting a bad precedent for a global weakening of the protection offered by legislation on social, economic and environmental standards. Europe should be moving forward improving what has been achieved, leaving behind short sighted controversial agreements of benefit to few and focusing on the future of the people and the planet.
Olga Kikou is European Affairs Manager for Compassion in World Farming
For further information on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership:
Regulatory aspects of TTIP: