Trade Agreements Should Allow Countries to Set High Standards
Modern-day trade agreements, such as TTIP, have little to do with the historical role of trade agreements that dealt almost exclusively with quotas and tariffs. Instead, today's trade pacts focus on "non-tariff" trade issues, or trade "barriers". However, what multinational corporations and most trade officials refer to as non-tariff barriers are actually domestic, democratically constructed social, health, environmental, and food safety standards intended to safeguard citizens.
Harmonization of Food Standards
A central aim of trade agreements is to "harmonize" differing standards between countries. In trade speak, "harmonization" can be represented under terms such as regulatory coherence or convergence, mutual recognition, and substantial equivalency. Such terms sound rather sensible, and appeal to arguments for "efficiency"; however, what we've seen post-WTO, NAFTA, and other trade agreements is that harmonization, enforced by various trade instruments, including investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS), can lead to a downward spiral of food safeguards. And, perversely, these trade agreements restrict or prohibit countries from attaining higher standards that protect citizens.
Some of the standards that the EU is being asked to harmonize by the US under the TTIP include lifting bans on accepting imports of hormone-injected beef, chlorine-washed poultry, and pork fed ractopamine. Additionally, the US is asking the EU to lower its animal welfare standards (which include production-method labeling and regulating animal on-farm treatment). And, finally, the US continues its quest for the EU to allow genetically engineered (GE) crops and GE products, and to eliminate or greatly lower its labeling standards pertaining to GE foods.
At the heart of disputes between the US and the EU on food safety standards is the precautionary principle, which is essentially a better-safe-than-sorry approach. The US is often guided by "risk assessment" that includes a cost-benefit analysis (although when it comes to pharmaceuticals, we follow a precautionary principle approach). US corporations and trade officials are adamant and unrelenting in their attack on the EU's use of the precautionary principle. A lobbyist for the US Council for International Business commented that TTIP is only worth doing if "getting rid of the precautionary principle" is achieved.
Often, US industry and trade officials mischaracterize the precautionary principle as being "unscientific," implying that no scientific analysis is performed. However, this is not the case. The EU banned hormone-injected beef early on when initial research suggested potential harms. As data on use of such hormones accumulated over the next several years, a full scientific evaluation revealed that the hormones indeed posed a risk to human health—one of the hormones was considered to be a "complete" carcinogen and all six hormones contained risks of endocrine, developmental, immunological, neurobiological, immunotoxic, genotoxic and carcinogenic effects, particularly for prepubescent children.
Instead of provoking a race to the bottom in standards setting, trade agreements should set minimum standards for critical issues such as food safety, and then allow countries to set even higher standards to protect citizens and the environment. It is one of the highest purposes of sovereign nations and their elected officials to enact good governance by setting high standards and practices that ensure safe and sustainable food for its citizens.
Debbie Barker is International Programs Director at the Center for Food Safety. She also served as the co-director of the International Forum on Globalization (IFG).
This article was published in the second of three theme weeks for our project "TTIP: Myths vs Reality". An introduction of the articles for the week can be found here, and introductions of the other two weeks can be found at the top of the TTIP Forum.