Voices 14/07/2014

Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership between EU and U.S.

The United States and the European Union are far more alike than they are different when it comes to agricultural and rural issues, and we both stand to benefit substantially from a T-TIP package that includes strong action for agriculture.

Rural economies are critical to the overall economic health of each of our nations. Trade and market access are vitally important to each of our agricultural sectors. Trade supports good-paying jobs and drives economic growth across our respective countries.

American farmers and ranchers are proud of their rural roots, a sentiment they share with their European brothers and sisters. They value hard work and appreciate the significance of their role as protectors of the land. They are unwavering and adaptable in the face of ever-fluctuating and increasingly severe weather and the unpredictability presented by climate change.

Each of you here in this room is keenly aware of the impact of hunger and food insecurity—both in your home countries and around the world. American and European farmers are challenged to feed a growing global population in a sustainable way. They work equally hard to balance those competing commitments to both deliver an affordable and nutritious food supply to their respective nations—and to the world—while acting as responsible stewards of soil and water resources. As a result, American and European consumers can trust that the products they find on grocery store shelves are wholesome, safe, and of the highest quality.

Our rural people and places have a power unlike many others. They meet one of our most fundamental needs—nutrition—and do so in the most efficient, sustainable way. Yet, as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, I am constantly asked to make the case for rural relevance each and every day, a struggle I'm sure you all understand intimately. Not so long ago, the majority of people lived in rural areas and farming was a way of life for significant portions of our population. Today, we now struggle with the issue of how agriculture is perceived. Many people are so far removed from where their food comes from—three, four and five generations—that they no longer feel that connection to the land. While they no longer live and work on the farm, consumers are increasingly keen on where their food comes from and how it is produced. We must continue to educate and inform and embrace the curiosity of consumers, and ensure that they can choose between a wide variety of safe, wholesome food.

I also believe that we need to embrace diversity. By diversity, I mean diversity of operations: small, middle-sized, and large; organic and conventional; those who sell their products at local farmers markets and those who export products for sale across the globe. We should be making space for all forms and all types of agriculture, provided that science tells us they are safe, to maximize our ability to feed a growing population in the face of growing resource constraints.

That's a sentiment we all share—that in order to survive, our farmers and ranchers must be adaptable, innovative and flexible. And while our production methods may differ, our end goal is the same—safe, nutritious, affordable and abundant food. As agriculture leaders, we strive to create new marketing opportunities for our farmers and ranchers so that they can sustain and grow their businesses and, in turn, foster economic growth in our rural communities.

That's why we need to be sure we have a seat at the table in the T-TIP negotiations. Agriculture has a stake in T-TIP and we, as agricultural leaders, are the best advocates for our constituencies. As agricultural leaders on both sides of the Atlantic, we need to engage and offer support to T-TIP negotiators. We need to be sure our voices are heard by negotiators and that we make the case for agricultural trade.

The opportunities for agriculture in the European Union and the United States inherent in T-TIP are too good to pass up. In 2012, the United States was the EU's top market for agricultural products. The EU is also an important market for U.S. agricultural exports, coming in at number five. From an economic standpoint, it only makes sense that agriculture be an important part of our bilateral trade agreement.

Over the past 20 years, EU food and agricultural exports to the United States increased dramatically from just over $7 billion in 1995 to more than $17.6 billion in 2013. In the same period, however, U.S. exports to the EU dropped dramatically, before rebounding to near $12 billion last year. It's clear that there is substantial room for increased agricultural trade between us, and T-TIP gives farmers on both sides of the Atlantic the opportunity to expand markets.

Reducing barriers to trade in T-TIP will be especially beneficial to the small- and medium-sized businesses that are the backbone of our respective economies. Under my tenure as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, we've expanded support for small and mid-sized farmers and ranchers to ensure that they can access capital, credit and other resources. Many of these farmers are looking for new market opportunities to sustain and grow their operations. Yet, for many of these businesses, the barriers to exporting are just too high. We need to focus on the goal of eliminating all tariffs and unwarranted non-tariff barriers that can price smaller businesses out of the export market.

We also need to focus on reducing the impact of the differences in our regulatory and standard-setting systems. For companies on both sides of the Atlantic, this is perhaps the most promising – and challenging – area for cooperation in T-TIP. The U.S. and the EU have the strongest regulatory protections in the world, and nothing we do through T-TIP will undermine this. But there are steps that can be taken to better align our regulatory and standard-setting processes by improving transparency, participation and accountability. The U.S.-EU organic equivalency agreement, which took effect two years ago this month, is a good example of how we can recognize each other's systems and facilitate trade to the benefit of both sides.

The only common language between us—science—should be the basis for deciding what is safe and legal. From there, let the producer decide how they want to farm and the consumer decide how they want to eat, rather than having choice made for them by unnecessary regulatory restrictions.

We won't always agree on specific production methods, and we don't have to. There is room for diversity in agriculture, just as there is room for an assortment of choices in our marketplaces. I don't believe it's our role to tell consumers which products to purchase and put on the table. Rather, it is our responsibility as governments to provide a wide array of choices, based on what science tells us is safe, and allow the consumer to decide.

Not to convince you to adopt certain production methods, but to ask only that safe American products be allowed access into the European market so that your consumers have the freedom to choose. We are not looking to flood Europe with our agricultural products, nor do we have the capacity to do so. We merely want to be able to sell our products, and we can offer the same in return so that our consumers, and consumers around the world, can have access to a wide variety of safe, affordable food.

di Tom Vilsack