This week Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack is traveling in Europe meeting European agricultural and trade officials to stress the importance of a strong commitment to agriculture within the bilateral trade agreement between the U.S. and European Union in the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (T-TIP).
He said meetings with his European counterparts allowed for an opportunity to have “frank discussions” with all member states to express how important agriculture is in the ongoing negotiations.
“Absent a real commitment to agriculture, it will be very difficult for Congress to get the necessary votes to pass T-TIP,” Vilsack said.
During his discussions, he said he focused on geographical indicators, biotechnology, cloning, regulatory simplification and pathogen reduction treatments. “These are serious issues that require some thought and willingness to come up with friendly solutions,” Vilsack said.
He stressed that a common goal is to make sure the agreement uses science and a commitment to following that science in establishing guidelines.
Geographical indicators (GI), which the EU uses to restrict the use of many common food names such as asiago, feta, parmesan and muenster and can only be appropriately displayed on products made in certain areas of Europe, has been a major point of contention in the discussions.
During the meetings, EU commissioners had the opportunity to make comments and nearly all also stressed the importance of maintaining GIs. However, Vilsack said he stressed that the United States too has an appreciation for promoting high value products and uses the trademark system to provide protection for those products.
Vilsack said there’s a significant difference between the trademark system and the one that seeks to exclude the use of what have been relatively generic terms. Vilsack added that there will need to be “serious negotiation” about the topic. But he added that there’s an understanding that the US will not be able to accept the stance the EU currently holds.
“I’m suggesting we ought to be able to find a way to capture value without limiting market access,” Vilsack said. “We’re both committed to finding a way to find that sweet spot where value can be protected but market access is not denied.”
He said further complicating the negotiations is a tentative agreement the EU has entered with Canada which doesn’t fit well with the U.S. trademark system.
Vilsack said he’s optimistic that at the end of the day, in the “long, long-term trade agreements cement relationships and end up benefiting all sides if structured properly.” He cited that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is balanced in the terms of ag trade and has increased trade opportunities and improved innovation. Vilsack said the same could be replicated with the EU if the agreement is done right.
“In the short-term, it’s going to require a willingness to sit down and communicate honestly with each other,” he said, adding it also doesn’t let naysayers criticize the benefits of trade.
It generally takes a long time for these agreements to come into fruition, especially as the general public needs educating. But in the end, Vilsack said strong bilateral agreements offer long-term benefits for the economy. “I’m sincerely hopeful that with a lot of hard work we can get to a good place,” he concluded.