Sunday

17th Feb 2019

Opinion

Time to beef up EU trade rules

  • Independent beef farmers who raise their cattle on pasture also exist in the US, but are less prominent than in the EU. (Photo: Oli)

The long-standing conflict with the United States over the European Union's ban on the use of growth hormones in beef cattle is back on the table.

Two decades ago, the US and EU clashed over the health impacts of using hormones to speed up the growth of cattle, before both sides agreeing on a fragile compromise to end the trade fight.

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The conflict is on the verge of a major comeback after the US meat industry pushed for a change in the EU’s beef import rules.

Now it is up to president Donald Trump’s US trade representative (USTR), Robert Lighthizer, to decide on whether to buckle to corporate pressure and slap new punitive duties on EU agricultural exports, as well as a possible rotating “carousel” of sanctions on other products - ensuring the impacts hit as many sectors as possible.

The EU has prohibited the use of growth-promoting hormones in beef since 1989 because of concerns for human health.

In 2008, the US won a World Trade Organization (WTO) challenge to that decision, winning the right to impose retaliatory tariffs on EU farm goods.

Revenge of the tariffs

At the time, the US and EU decided to play nice by agreeing to a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), which started a special programme to import a set quantity of beef - not treated by hormones - into the EU.

With other countries such as Brazil and Uruguay competing for that quota, the US beef companies, led by the North American Meat Institute - the most powerful U.S. meat lobby - have become increasingly incensed that they have a declining share of the programme.

With the MOU set to expire, the previous USTR, started a process late last year to determine a list of retaliatory tariffs to impose on the EU for the hormone ban, and launched a period of public consultation.

The USTR received more than 11,000 comments, primarily from US retailers of EU motorcycles. Their import costs would double if the US were to follow through with slapping tariffs on EU motorcycle producers.

The US could also raise tariffs on EU exports of Roquefort cheese and Perrier water - raising concerns both from US grocery stores and EU exporters.

At a public hearing in February, William Busis from USTR stated the issue plainly: “The way trade disputes get resolved is that stakeholders within Europe talk to their member governments, and then their member governments talk to the commission. And then there is enough, I don’t know if the word is pressure, but there is enough input (emphasis added) that the commission then decides, ‘Oh, yes, maybe I should resolve this dispute.’”

The US is clearly hoping that hitting other sectors will get the European Commission to cave in and allow the imports of hormone beef.

The hormone beef case raises fundamental questions about the role of trade and the influence of industrial players.

Fundamental questions

Who gets to choose what kind of food and farm system we want? Is it the big corporations and beef traders that sell these products, and the trade negotiators acting on their behalf? Or are democracies allowed to judge the risks and decide for themselves which farm systems they deem culturally, environmentally, or socially appropriate?

Sadly, the issue doesn’t just stop at whether growth hormones are used or not. The beef entering the EU market under the special quota is supposedly hormone-free and considered “high quality beef”. This description is questionable at best, if not misleading.

The US meat industry essentially negotiated a deal that would require beef cattle to be fed a minimum of 62 percent feed grains or concentrated feed.

Aside from the environmental problems related to monocultures of genetically modified and chemically intensive soy and corn-based feeds, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has even opined that excessive grain can cause several animal welfare problems.

Moreover, the “high quality” cattle are fattened in barren feedlots - rather than allowed to roam free on pasture. Nutritionists confirm that cattle raised on pasture make for less fatty beef with Omega 3 and other nutrients not found in grain-fed beef.

Independent beef farmers who raise their cattle on pasture also exist in the US, but are less prominent than in the EU.

On both sides of the Atlantic, however, they are being squeezed out by the larger industrial-scale farms, together with trade deals seeking to push the price down further.

The sorry conclusion of the hormone-beef saga is that farmers, consumers, and the environment are being sacrificed at the altar of free trade and corporate power.

We do not subscribe to the politics of a trade war - we do, however, believe it’s time to seriously rethink trade policy.

The starting point should be the advancement of higher food and agricultural production standards that enhance animal welfare, public health, the environment - and the lives of people who produce the food.

Shefali Sharma is the director of the European Office of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. Mute Schimpf is a food campaigner for Friends of the Earth Europe.

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