As the sun began to set on the first day of Cheese, a crowd gathered in one of Bra’s main squares for a conference on a trade agreement between the EU and the US. Known as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), if approved the agreement would create the world’s largest free trade zone. Until recently very few people had heard of the deal or the negotiations surrounding it. It was a trade agreement reserved for politicians, economists and those in the know. Today however, the debate is widening and concerns are growing.
It was the initial lack of transparency surrounding the deal that first raised the alarm for civil society, resulting in a number of national and European-wide campaigns. Now, with growing media attention and public awareness regarding the agreement, producers and consumers are beginning to comprehend the implications for various aspects of daily life, from working rights and public services, to environmental protection and food. In recent months, demonstrations against the TTIP (and other trade deals) have taken place across Europe. Over 2 million people from across Europe have also signed a self-organized European Citizens’ Initiative petition calling for the TTIP to be scrapped.
The TTIP will apply to the trade of all commodities, from cars and oil to milk and cheese. With agriculture making up just 5% of the business interests addressed in the TTIP, there are fears that it could easily be overlooked. The key concern is that European standards will be compromised, leading to the standardization of cultures, food regulations and a huge loss of diversity.
The panel of representatives at Cheese gathered to further investigate the impact of such a deal for our food, in particular dairy products. With panelists including Laurent Pinatel from Confédération Paysanne; Tiziana Beghin, Member of Parliament representing the Five Stars Movement; Gilles Luneau, journalist; and Monica Di Sisto, Fair Watch, most arguments presented were against the TTIP. Presenting a counter argument was Simone Crolla, Delegate Councilor, American Chamber of Commerce in Italy.
Kicking off discussions, Crolla told the audience the TTIP would be good for EU and US citizens, and the economy, focusing particularly on an increase in GDP. Stating the deal would present benefits for both sides, he said it would create jobs and result in an overall improvement in conditions. In terms of health, he said specific care would be given to ensure health concerns were addressed. He also highlighted that the growing movement in favor of organic food and against GMOs in the US should be seen as an encouraging sign for those fearing the negative implications for European farming and food standards. He focused on the larger context, suggesting that Europe is an old continent with stagnated trade: Joining forces and finding new outlets for the economy is therefore what is urgently required.
The other panelists saw the age of Europe in a different light. For them, one of the biggest threats that such a deal would present to European farming would be the loss of heritage. They urged those in charge of the deal to take a look at the different forms of agriculture in the EU and US, as well as the different size of operations. While Europe is mainly comprised of small-scale farmers, many using techniques passed on from generation to generation, the US leans towards a form of agriculture based on large-scale production and monocultures. In addition, 86% of US agriculture is already GM based. Is it really possibly to merge such different activities?
As tariffs between the EU and US are already low (on average only 4%), much of the focus of this agreement will be on regulations, non-tariff barriers and red tape. Regarding food, the agreement seeks to favor transatlantic trade by harmonizing European and US regulations, at present very different. The panelists highlighted key differences in terms of the use of hormones, breeding conditions and GMOs. As Monica Di Sisto pointed out, “Here in Europe, our food is alive. We still have a lot of bacteria in our food. US food is dead!” The issues surrounding D.O.P status for European cheeses were also considered. Only 11 cheeses with D.O.P. status are currently guaranteed protection, but what about the others? Furthermore, with European labels considered complicated, there is a chance that traceability could be lost.
The panelists also argued that such a deal would change the market in favor of big exporters. Smaller producers, such as those found in Piedmont, would gain very little. The agreement could lead to more imports into EU, with less within the EU, between Germany and Italy for example. In terms of cheese, 75% of Italian exports are currently from within the EU; this market could be lost.
Although the panel was somewhat one-sided, it was clear for most of those in the audience, and those who live and work around Bra, that the implications of the TTIP are worrying. As someone in the crowd pointed out, why would they want to export their milk to the US, when they already have a market here? It will be interesting to reconvene here in two years time for a further discussion, as it seems for now, much uncertainty remains.