At last, the moment is here. On February 15 the European Parliament will be called upon to ratify—virtually without any debate—the free trade agreement between the European Union and Canada (CETA), signed on October 13 of last year. If the text (1,600 pages of clauses to be approved or rejected en masse) passes, much of CETA will come into force immediately, pending the votes of each of national parliament.
Everyone who has the future of small-scale agriculture and quality food production at heart must call for the agreement to be rejected. Yet again, we find ourselves facing a treaty that will promote, defend and assert the interests of big industry, to the detriment of citizens and small producers. This is not an exaggeration of the facts, nor is it a coincidence that the opponents of the treaty have collected 3.5 million signatures in just a few months.
Let’s take a couple of examples to get a clearer idea of what’s involved. In Europe today there are about 1,300 food products with geographical indication, 2,800 wines and 330 spirits. As it is framed today, the CETA would protect 173 of them. This means that denominations of origin that we are accustomed to considering as indicative of products with a strong link to a local area and a consolidated traditional production technique could be easily imitated overseas, without being subject to sanctions. The opposite would also be true if it were not for the fact that Canada has no system of geographical indication for its products. If that’s not enough, here’s another example: European meat is subject to much stricter production standards than North American meat (growth hormones are banned, carcasses can’t be treated with chloride, and animal welfare and farm size standards have to be respected). This means that up to now, thanks to customs protection policies, the domestic market for European pork has survived despite Canadian pork costing half as much. At least for the moment, CETA would not liberalize production techniques, but it would remove duties on meat imports. Considering that the average pig farm in Canada has 2,000 animals, while European farms have fewer than 500, how do we expect our breeders to do to compete? To cut costs in terms of quality, workers’ wages, animal wellbeing and supply chain concentration. Is there a future for the small producer on this merry-go-round? I honestly don’t think so.
Don’t think this is simply protectionism for European farmers, because for other supply chains the opposite is true. Take milk production in Europe, which has been afflicted by overproduction and disgracefully low prices for many years, whereas Canada has so far managed to maintain satisfactory profit levels for dairy farmers. CETA would open up the Canadian market to European dairy products and trigger a drop in prices, and therefore in the living conditions of Canadian farmers. It’s exactly the same argument: instead of improving the conditions of those who are worse off, this would lead to a bearish price war and push small producers to the cliff edge. These measures play exclusively into the hands of big industry and financial speculators, who under CETA will be able to claim damages from governments that threaten the freedom of multinationals by imposing strict environmental and production standard. Is this the future that we are proposing for agriculture?
International free trade agreements are pointless if they fail to raise (environmental and social) production standards to protect the interests of the small producers. This isn’t the case with CETA and it wasn’t the case with TTIP or TPP either. Nor will it be the case with other similar treaties in the future. Signing them means waiving the regulatory and policy function that should be the prerogative of governments, thereby privatizing the decision-making processes too. Our hope is that the members of the European Parliament realize this.
Carlo Petrini, La Repubblica 14-02-17