Aiming to spur support for a major trade deal between the United States and the European Union, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is currently abroad visiting with European officials. If consummated, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (T-TIP), under negotiation since July 2013, would be the largest free-trade area in the world.

Most observers expect T-TIP negotiations to run into 2015.

Following a meeting with EU officials, Vilsack spoke about T-TIP progress and hindrances during a Monday (June 16) press call.

“We just concluded a working lunch with 28 agricultural ministers, commissioners and representatives from the EU states and countries. It was an opportunity for frank discussion. It was important, I think, for me to express … my belief that we have much in common in terms of agriculture, that our farmers are faced with the same concerns and opportunities and European farmers…

“One of the things we have in common is the importance of market opportunity that allows producers to profit from agricultural production. The importance of having diversity of opportunity -- not only in local and regional food systems but also in the ability to export -- is extraordinarily important.”

Vilsack then hit on the main reason for his trip. “The key to export opportunities are free and fair trade agreements. … I wanted to emphasize in the meeting … the necessity that agriculture be a significant part of whatever the trade discussions and negotiations ultimately end up being with reference to T-TIP. I was very candid with my colleagues that absent a real commitment … to agriculture in this trade agreement it would very difficult for Congress to get the votes to pass T-TIP.”

What must be tackled in the negotiations? Among the issues, according to Vilsack: tariffs, non-tariff barriers, sanitary and phyto-sanitary issues, cloning, regulatory simplification and pathogen reduction treatments. “All are serious issues that require thought and a willingness to figure creative solutions.”

Biotech/Geographical Indicators

The secretary was then queried on recent EU actions to allow member states to make individual decisions regarding biotechnology rather than present a collective front. Vilsack’s answer demonstrated the difficulty biotechnology could present to the trade deal.

“We didn’t specifically discuss the opt-out (biotechnology) provision recently enacted. We talked in more general terms about the importance of, from our perspective, understanding diversity and the need for coexistence among various production processes. … There are obviously strong feelings about the issue here in Europe. We haven’t taken a specific position on the opt-out provision but I’d say at the end of the day it’s always going to be about what science tells us.”

Another hurdle to overcome in a trade deal is the EU “Geographical Indicators (GI)” designation. Such designations lock down certain words -- “feta” cheese, for example -- to certain EU regions and processes and prevent those manufacturing the cheese outside those areas from marketing their product as “feta.”

Vilsack compared GI to the U.S. trademark system. Trademarks, he said, “basically provide protection for those creating an identity or brand.” GI, on the other hand, “seeks to exclude the use of what have been treated, up to this point, as generic terms. I think there’s no question there will have to be serious negotiation about this. … We’re not accepting of the notion that (the EU) could unilaterally impose a restriction on a generic term. I tried to suggest we ought to be able to find a way to protect value without limiting market access.”

Vilsack said, if “done right” both EU and U.S. agriculture will benefit from a trade agreement. But he didn’t downplay the naysayer sniping that is inevitable. Negotiators must not allow “folks who criticize without knowing what the end result will be” to derail talks. Leaders mustn’t allow trade deal opponents “to define the agreement before it’s crafted. That’s a communication challenge and (at the lunch) we talked a good deal about that.

“There needs to be some level of educating the general public and policy makers about what this is all about without revealing the details that would disclose negotiation strategy or decisions.

“At the same time (we mustn’t) create a void that is solely filled by those who mischaracterize or jump to the conclusion that the agreement would do something harmful. It’s tricky and very hard.”