By Melanie Foley
The June 17, 2020 House Ways and Means Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives hearing with U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) Robert Lighthizer featured a very important exchange on trade pacts and regulatory standards. Ways and Means Trade Subcommittee Chair Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore) said to the USTR:
Currently, the United States spends too much money subsidizing large corporations and doesn’t adequately help the majority of small and mid-size farmers. And it subsidizes manufactured food at the expense of fresh, healthy food. We’ve entered into phase two of our agreements with the United Kingdom. I hope that our negotiators can focus on tearing down protections and barriers to trade, like quotas and price control measures, and spend less political capital on areas where our countries may have reasonable policy differences.
I think too often we hide behind requiring “science-based” justifications for other nations’ sanitary or phytosanitary measures without allowing flexibility on values and public inquiry. Many large agricultural interest folks point to scientific studies on pathogen rinses for poultry. You know, maybe we should be asking about our production process that requires us to wash chickens in chlorine in the first place. Can’t reasonable people have concerns about slaughterhouses in the United States? Anybody who has watched the news recently understands that the United States policy on slaughterhouses needs a much closer review.
With pesticides, our regulations do not set a high enough standard to determine their effects on our environment, and how those environmental effects impact our health. Should we really export our weak standards to another country, who has legitimate public policy concerns and may provide better protection? For genetically modified wheat or meat, altered by growth hormones, is it possible in a democracy where consumers have input might choose to restrict these practices other than interfering with American commerce?
As with all negotiations, there are some priorities that we will push harder than others, but I would hope you will focus your attention and that of your team on protectionist hurdles for our farmers, rather than areas of legitimate policy differences. American families need national and international agricultural policies that address our common welfare and allow for targeted regulations that promote health, address climate change, and put people ahead of corporate interests. I would hope that you and your staff would be willing to help us explore these differences to determine where there are legitimate policy differences, rather than simply protectionist impacts. Would it be possible for us to work with your team to explore this?
Rep. Blumenauer described in detail how this FTA could lock in lax U.S. food safety standards — on massive agribusiness subsidies, pesticides, slaughterhouses, chlorinated chicken and more — and export these to the United Kingdom.
This position reflects decades of trade policy that preceded the World Trade Organization (WTO). Namely, if a domestic regulatory policy does not discriminate against foreign goods – by providing less favorable treatment to imports relative to domestic goods – why should trade agreements meddle with that domestic standard?
To put it another way, if citizens in a democratic process decide that they want laying hens or livestock treated humanely or want genetically-modified and non-GMO goods separated and labeled so consumers can choose, why should trade agreements label such policies illegal and require their elimination in the face of trade sanctions?
Lighthizer’s response was unfortunate:
On this issue of agriculture, I’ll repeat what I’ve said before. Number one, agricultural policy is set by the United States Congress, not by the U.S. trade representative. So, the issues you raised I know are difficult issues and are being fought out in Congress. And Congress will come to some conclusion and I’ll be guided by what Congress says. For right now, the reality is that for what we want and what we insist from our trading partners is equal access, fair access based on science. The difference between big and small corporate farmers, I don’t know much about that. I would say that the United States has the best agriculture in the world. It has the safest, highest standards. We shouldn’t confuse science with consumer preference. If consumers have a preference for one thing or another, they should certainly exercise their preference, but it is not the role of the U.S. trade representative to change agriculture policy. I am dictated that by the agriculture department, but mostly by the United States Congress. So, what I’m going to do is try to insist on science-based restrictions and to the extent there are restrictions that are not science-based we will object.
At a Senate Finance Committee hearing later that same day, Lighthizer doubled down on his commitment for so-called “science-based” standards, saying:
They now, in terms of some maximum [pesticide] residue levels, they actually have: if there’s any detection at all, the product is unacceptable. To me, that is just plain protectionism. And making every regulation science-based is the equivalent of getting rid of protectionism. It’s the equivalent of getting rid of any other non-tariff trade barrier, and it’s something I’d wish, if anything, I would say Europe is going in the wrong direction, not in the right direction. They’re being controlled by protectionist interests, and well, let me just leave it at that. Protectionist interests.
In my judgement, we have to insist on science-based standards, for our farmers, and I would say this, this standards thing is not just an ag issue, right. I mean they’re using standards in industry too. It’s a higher art in ag, but they use it in industry too. We have to insist on it, and to the extent people deny us access, we shouldn’t give them a trade agreement, and if we don’t have a trade agreement, in my judgment, we ought to be taking trade actions against them. And I’m looking right now at whether or not right now some of these actions, I want to consult with you and your staff, whether or not right now we shouldn’t be looking at a 301 on some of these things. It’s getting so far out of control where they say, literally, if there’s any detectable residue, the product is unacceptable. That’s just nothing to do with science…
One of the things, on the UK, you know on this rinse on poultry, this so-called chlorinated chicken, that these people have, it’s going to be a huge problem. And I’ve made it clear that this is not going to be an agreement, that I’m bringing back an agreement to the United States Congress that excludes our agricultural products on a nonscientific basis.”
Lighthizer’s perspective represents U.S. agribusiness. Blumenauer’s perspective has a much larger base of support – not just his constituents in Oregon, but many U.S. and UK consumers.
In a recent joint letter, dozens of U.S. and UK labor, environmental and other organizations expressed their concerns that an FTA could pose risks food safety, digital privacy, animal welfare, financial regulation and much more.