On Wednesday, December 10, 2014, the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) hosted Minister Christian Schmidt, German federal minister of food and agriculture, for GMF’s fifth installment of its Transatlantic Talks series. The conversation focused on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and the implications that a completed deal could have on food and agricultural standards on both sides of the Atlantic. In keeping with the tradition of pairing a high-level government official from one side of the Atlantic with a senior journalist from the other, Marilyn Geewax, senior business editor for National Public Radio, moderated the conversation.
GMF President Karen Donfried welcomed participants, hailing TTIP as the “key, proactive transatlantic project of our time.” Given the concerns regarding agriculture and food safety in TTIP negotiations, Donfried noted the importance of hosting Minister Schmidt to shed light on these issues. Geewax then opened the discussion with Minister Schmidt, highlighting the controversy surrounding the issue of food safety production standards and the divergent viewpoints between Europeans and Americans. Minister Schmidt suggested that concerns related to the deal suggest a deficit of confidence in both food security standards and a misunderstanding due to the way the deal is being negotiated. He advocated for a policy that ensures the exclusion of additives during the production process. Minister Schmidt also observed that it is not solely an issue of science, but one of cultural disparity. Food safety standards are not entirely an emotional issue and could be problematic, as the long-term effects of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are not fully understood and the ability to distinguish natural products from GMOs remains a concern. Minister Schmidt then pointed to Europe’s current solution, which allows the “acceptance of having seeds manipulated, but gives national states the right to decide if they accept that they are planted.” This allows the conversation to move beyond the issue of discrimination and could be useful in confronting some of the challenges in the free trade deal. Continuing with the issue of discrimination, Geewax asked whether this is merely a “matter of letting consumers know and choose” or if using labels to solve this concern is entirely unrealistic. Although there has not been sufficient conversation, Minister Schmidt suggested that there is a lack of confidence in the quality of products as a result of GMO manipulation, which labeling could solve by providing consumers with an informed choice.
Geewax then turned the conversation toward small- and medium-sized farmers in Europe by asking whether TTIP could be positive for these producers because it could open new markets or if there is legitimacy in the claim that they would be threatened by larger U.S. producers. Minister Schmidt stated that although small-sized farmers believe that the United States will take over the market, he does not believe this will happen as Europe is a net exporter to the United States. Rather, this would afford farmers increased market opportunities. When questioned if the United States should raise American standards to meet higher European standards, Schmidt emphasized the need to “find what is behind this cultural issue and free trade itself.” He maintained that while we must harmonize and find a way where “we accept that the others have another way, but that they have standards,” both the United States and Europe must understand and realize the limitations of TTIP.
Trying to examine the broader implications of TTIP, Geewax inquired as to whether or not TTIP is also intended to elevate Europe out of its economic woes or if it might strengthen ties between the U.S. and the EU. Minister Schmidt pointed to former President Harry Truman who believed that free trade could encourage peace. As such, he indicated that the successful negotiation of TTIP could boost confidence on the continent and across the Atlantic. Schmidt concluded his remarks by underlining how trade deals in Asia, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), pose far greater challenges than TTIP, as there are “many agricultural products that are beyond all cultural issues.”
Geewax then opened the floor to questions. Responding to concerns regarding regional agriculture protections, Minister Schmidt underscored the importance of regional markets, like German beer and Franconian wine. However, he insisted that these types of issues should not be a significant hurdle to the completion of TTIP. Additional questions and topics of conversation included the stricter use of antibiotics, dairy, TPP, whether or not TTIP will codify animal welfare standards, the timeline for TTIP passage, and what the U.S. can do to alleviate concerns in Europe and for those currently opposing TTIP.
This fifth installment of GMF’s Transatlantic Talks series included over 80 participants from the private sector, government, academia, the diplomatic community, think tanks, and the media. The sixth installment in the Transatlantic Talks series will take place later this month.