Forum Highlights EU, US Trade Negotiations

7/20/2013 7:00 AM
By Janice F. Booth Maryland Correspondent

Negotiations are underway between the European Union and United States over a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or TTIP. Major components of the TTIP are issues of concern to American agribusiness, farmers and government policymakers, and they were the focus of a forum Wednesday in Washington, sponsored by Farm Foundation and the International Food & Agriculture Trade Policy Council.

Two hot topics in these trade negotiations have been the use of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, and geographical indications.

“Our industry’s position is pragmatic. We’re not setting a course to overhaul regulations,” said Matt O’Mara, director of international affairs for the Biotechnology Industry Organization.

O’Mara reminded the audience that biotechnology and GMOs are here to stay. Since 1996, according to the USDA, the use of GMO corn and soybeans has grown dramatically in the U.S., with GMO varieties now comprising 93 percent of total soybean acreage and nearly 90 percent of corn acreage. O’Mara said the biotech industry wants to see a U.S.-EU trade agreement that ensures market access for farmers who use GMO products and addresses the trade barriers to GMO products that currently exist in the EU.

O’Mara pointed out that there is a growing adoption of GMOs by farmers in developing countries. Of the 17.3 million farms using GMOs, 93 percent are “resource poor” farms in 28 countries, he said.

“This is not a U.S. versus the EU issue. The drivers of technology are the developing countries,” O’Mara said.

He said biotech developers want a global regulatory process derived from TTIP negotiations, which will facilitate more reasonable timelines for adopting GMO products. If the adoption process becomes more predictable, O’Mara said, the biotech industry “can facilitate trade and work with the existing laws and regulations,” adding that biotech developers are not trying to change EU labeling laws or address the issues associated with cultivation in Europe.

Many believe a new trade agreement can potentially improve dialogue and increase accountability of government ministers and technology groups. O’Mara said the result could be “countries with regulatory regimes that are not in line with the international standards and those unable to implement regulations in a predictable and consistent manner would be vulnerable to trade problems.”

In addition to GMOs, geographical indicators seem to be raising some anxiety. These indicators are specific branding tied closely to a region or national location, such as Champagne, cheddar cheese, or prosciutto. Each product has international name recognition based on the region where the product is grown or produced, and there is controversy over international marketing efforts to apply a region’s brand-identity to similar products.

Three panel members spoke about geographical indicators.

William Kerr of the University of Saskatchewan discussed Canada’s experience in negotiating with the EU about intellectual property and trademark protection. David Biltchik of the Italian company Consorzio del Prosciutto de Parma reviewed his company’s experience protecting their branding and intellectual property from intrusion in U.S. markets. He was followed by Craig Thorn, a founding attorney with DTB Associates, whose specialty is the applicability of World Trade Organization, or WTO, rules to regulatory measures governing biotechnology, geographical indications and other forms of government regulation affecting trade.

Thorn spoke about the views of U.S. industry on geopolitical indicators. He pointed out that while geographical indicators add value to products, they often disrupt trade and cause domestic problems. These conflicts often focus on one or more of three areas: the scope of protection for a product’s geographical indicator, the registration of common or generic names, and trademark infringement.

Thorn noted that the EU has historically granted protection to individual-identifying components and even single names with no geographical components. Thorn points to “clawbacks,” when the EU has tried to regain common names and force established producers to cease-and-desist — Consorzio del Prosciutto di Parma, aka prosciutto ham, is an example.

Thorn urged a pragmatic approach to the TTIP negotiations on geographical indicators. He suggested granting protection without unduly disrupting marketing and trade by requiring registration of only legitimate geographical indicators, applying compound terms such as “French Champagne” and “Idaho potatoes” and avoiding registering common names as single-term geographical indicators, and acknowledging historic, commercial realities, such as Gouda cheese, settling for a trade marking “Gouda-Holland.”

Following the presentations, moderator J.B. Penn, a trustee of Farm Foundation, invited questions for the panelists.

Several questioners asked Matt O’Mara to confirm the biotech industry’s position on negotiations, as he had explained it. He stressed the industry wants trade negotiations to address “practical solutions for clearing the backlog of applications and the underlying legislation that holds up fair trade” between EU countries and businesses marketing GMO products.

“There is no need to overhaul legislation,” O’Mara said. “We want to work out a way forward.”

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