By Natasha Foote
(EurActiv) — The European Commission and the US administration have announced the creation of a new transatlantic collaboration platform on agriculture in a bid to boost knowledge exchange and cooperation, but tensions remain over the wider implications of the EU’s push on sustainability.
The platform, announced on Wednesday (3 November), marks the beginning of a “new chapter in EU-US collaboration with a new platform,” according to US agriculture secretary, Tom Vilsack.
“It’s frankly time we roll up our sleeves and re-engage on most pressing issues facing agriculture and our rural communities,” Vilsack said during an event marking the platform’s launch, noting this is the “first real opportunity in almost a decade” for the respective ministries to work together in such a partnership.
The platform aims at exchanging knowledge and information, but also promoting mutual understanding and trust in efforts for the two agricultural powerhouses to work together to address global challenges in terms of sustainability.
The EU’s Agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski welcomed the move, highlighting that cooperation between the two is needed “now more than ever” and that they are in a “strong position” to lead the change on sustainable agriculture.
Focus on the destination, not the journey
It is no secret that the two do not see eye to eye on the future direction of the agri-food sector, and the news comes on the back of rising tensions over the EU’s growing sustainability ambitions.
Notably, the US has reserved harsh criticism for the EU’s flagship food and farming policy, the Farm to Fork strategy, amid warnings it could lead to a reduction in agricultural productivity.
In a move designed to counter the strategy, the US has since initiated the creation of its own coalition to help elevate sustainable productivity growth as a “strategic action priority”.
But while their chosen paths to a more sustainable future may differ, the two agriculture chiefs were quick to stress that they share the same vision centred around common sustainability goals.
“What we’re suggesting is that there are different ways to get to a net-zero emission culture. And we need to respect that there are different pathways,” Vilsack said, adding that there is no desire to force people to adopt a particular system.
Instead, there must be a recognition that both are engaged in “multiple, effective ways to achieve mutually desired outcomes.”
Meanwhile, Wojciechowski took the opportunity to stress that the two agricultural powerhouses share more similarities than differences, both in respect to their agricultural systems and the challenges that they face.
“While the USA and Europe are separated by an ocean, we are connected in our land,” he said.
Stay in your lane, warns US
However, beneath the collaborative spirit lay veiled warnings over future potential trade barriers and meddling in each other’s affairs.
Referencing the mounting calls for the EU to apply the same high sustainability standards expected of European farmers to its imported products, Vilsack warned that any attempt to impose external production standards on US agriculture would not be welcomed.
“If you attempt to impose production standards, what you do is you create the real opportunity for significant trade barriers that run afoul of World Trade Organisation, that don’t necessarily give consumers the choice that they may want,” he warned.
“Unjustifiable” trade barriers, Vilsack added, take an economic toll but also “stifle the development of new technologies needed to address the challenge of feeding a growing population on a smaller environmental footprint”.
Asked by EURACTIV how European farmers can be protected from imports created with lower standards, Commissioner Wojciechowski said he was aware of the concerns, but stressed it was not in the interest of either party to create barriers to trade.
“Of course I fully understand the farmers’ concerns about imports. But now the main problems of European farmers is not about the high imports, but of exporting our European products,” he said.
“We are food exporters. This is not our interest to [create] trade barriers,” he said, adding that this will be the main topic of discussion during the upcoming French presidency of the Council of the EU, which starts in January.
“The French presidency will be a good opportunity to discuss how to improve the trade relationship and to achieve as much as possible the same standards,” the Commissioner said.
French President Emmanuel Macron has previously indicated the need to rethink EU trade policies to include mirror clauses on climate and biodiversity. France is also one of the EU countries that have so far refused to sign a free trade deal with Latin American countries, saying it expects guarantees on environment and health standards.