BRUSSELS » The top U.S. agriculture official on Tuesday called on the European Union to do more to ease restrictions on gene-altered food and feed crops if it hoped to reach a trans-Atlantic trade pact.
"There can’t be a trade agreement without a serious and significant commitment to agriculture," the official, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, told reporters Tuesday, a day after an informal meeting with European farm ministers. European consumers "ought to have a choice" whether to use biotech foods, he said.
Vilsack has a tough case to make, though. There continues to be deep resistance to bioengineered agricultural products in the European Union — or to easing many other agricultural trade protections, for that matter. The fight over food, in fact, is a big impediment to progress in talks that are already moving more slowly than officials on both sides had wanted when President Barack Obama announced them last year.
Negotiators are trying to reach a Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, an agreement that goes far beyond cutting import duties by creating a more uniform market and by synchronizing regulations for products like automobiles and medicines. But after five rounds of meetings, the negotiators are at odds in important areas, including how to lower tariffs, whether to include financial services in any deal, and how to create freer trade in food and farming.
The deal is also drawing opposition from groups on both sides of the Atlantic, concerned it will lower environmental standards and weaken consumer protections.
The United States has long insisted that there is no scientific evidence of safety risks from using foods and feeds whose genetic makeup have been altered through bioengineering. But many Europeans are more cautious, and some deride the products as "Frankenfoods" that must remain heavily restricted on farms and in the food chain. European shops tend to carry few foods with gene-altered ingredients because of skepticism among consumers.
Cultivation in Europe is also almost nonexistent. EU officials have proposed ways of encouraging more cultivation of such crops. One idea is to give countries that are steadfastly opposed to biotech crops, like Austria, broader scope to ban them from their territory. Those countries would, in turn, then ease their opposition to allowing the crops on a broader European basis. But whether those rules, which still must be approved by the European Parliament, would promote more cultivation is an open question.