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EU-U.S. Trade: A Tale Of Two Farms

U.S. and EU officials begin talks Monday on an ambitious free-trade agreement aimed at generating billions of dollars of new trade. But negotiators must overcome barriers created by cultural and philosophical differences over sectors like agriculture. In Europe, the cultivation of genetically modified crops is banned, while in the U.S., they are a central part of food production. NPR's Jackie Northam visited a farm in Delaware and NPR's Eleanor Beardsley visited one in Burgundy, France, to look at those deep-seated differences. We hear from Jackie first.

A ferocious noon sun beats down on Richard Wilkins as he traverses long rows of corn at his farm in Greenwood, Del. The tall, healthy stalks bow slightly to a gentle breeze that does little to ease the heat. He's expecting a relatively good corn yield this year. He first started farming more than 40 years ago. He began planting genetically modified crops — corn, soybeans, alfalfa — in the mid-1990s. Since then, Wilkins has become a true believer, he calls them genetically enhanced crops.

"This is an advancement in science that's good for mankind, it's good for the planet," he says. "It's something that myself as a farmer, ecologist, environmentalist, I've embraced it as being a better way for us to grow our food."

A Stumbling Block

Genetically modified crops will be one of many thorny issues taken up when the U.S. and the European Union sit down to negotiate the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership — or T-TIP — in Washington this week. The ambitious free-trade deal could form the world's largest single market. It promises to create thousands of new jobs and generate tens of billions of dollars of additional trade.

Negotiators will attempt to reduce tariffs and adapt common standards. Both sides have much to gain. But what will be especially difficult will be overcoming barriers created by cultural and philosophical differences when it comes to sensitive areas like agriculture.

Roughly 90 percent of the soybeans, corn, cotton and sugar beets now grown in the U.S. are genetically modified. Wilkins believes many Americans are used to the idea. But he says Europeans view the benefits and safety of genetically modified crops with deep suspicion. He says there are philosophical differences when it comes to genetically modified crops that will be difficult to overcome in the trade negotiations.

Wilkins say the EU subscribes to the "precautionary principle." He says it wants ironclad assurances that products made from genetically modified organisms — or GMOs — won't be harmful in the long term. Wilkins says there's nothing wrong with being cautious.

"But you shouldn't refuse to try something because you don't know, you're worried or scared that even though all the science says that it's safe that science may be wrong," he says.

Wilkins says sometimes using the precautionary principle is an excuse for not giving access to the marketplace.

Sales To Europe

Wilkins, who is a member of the American Soybean Association, says Europe is an important market for American farmers. But he's watched U.S. exports of GMO crops to Europe shrink over the past 15 years. Genetically modified soybean exports dropped 70 percent. The soybean association blames that primarily on anti-GMO activists in Europe and the EU's decision to label food packages as containing GMO products. Wilkins says the soybean association opposes labeling food packages and considers the issue a non-starter in the free-trade negotiations.

"It gives a signal to the less informed purchaser ... the less educated consumer would interpret that as, 'Well, I don't want to eat that; it contains genetically modified organisms,' " he says.

Over the years, the EU has authorized only a few varieties of GMO crops for import. Wilkins says the U.S. wants it to adopt a faster, more streamlined regulatory process for everything from agriculture to automobiles. Analysts say both sides have safety and health in mind, but go about it in a different way.

The View From France

From Eleanor Beardsley:

Most American beef is banned in Europe because most U.S. cattle are raised on genetically modified food. French farmer Michel Baudot has about 500 head of cattle in the Burgundy region and says he believes those rules should remain in place.
Eleanor Beardsley / NPR
Most American beef is banned in Europe because most U.S. cattle are raised on genetically modified food. French farmer Michel Baudot has about 500 head of cattle in the Burgundy region and says he believes those rules should remain in place.

In a verdant field in the middle of Burgundy, cattle farmer Michel Baudot, a third-generation beef producer, looks out among this stock of cattle. The herd gathers around him as he offers a little treat. Baudot raises about 500 head of cattle — they're the all-white Charolais breed, known for its high-quality meat.

In the warm months, the animals stay in the fields eating grass. In the winter, Baudot brings them into the barn, where they eat mostly hay and some grains.

That's a completely different system than in the U.S. In the states, the large majority of cattle are raised on giant feedlots, where they're fed GMO grains and given hormones to build bulk quickly. Baudot says this way is cheaper and faster, but it would not work in Europe.

"It's impossible to have the same food in France and Europe because the consumer don't want to eat GMO or hormones. It's forbidden," he says.

Most American beef is banned in Europe. Only a small percentage of what is known as non-hormone-treated cattle is allowed in. American ranchers hope trade negotiations will help ease European restrictions on American beef. But Baudot says he fears competing openly with American cattle farmers because it's not a level playing field. He says the continent's mostly family-owned farms cannot compete with industrial production.

Concerns About A Deal

"I'm worried about open business because [I'm] sure we will not win because it's too different," he says. "If it's open, I think in 10 years, we all disappear in France and Europe. The cost in the U.S. is less than in Europe."

Baudot says the EU has lots of obligations that cost money. One, in particular, is traceablity, where every piece of beef must be traced back to its herd and even the original cow. Baudot says this is a key component of EU farming that is not generally practiced in the U.S.

All of Baudot's cows have names, and each one wears a bar-coded ear tag and has a passport listing its mother and father and where it was born, raised and slaughtered. That's how traceability is ensured.

Beyond the livestock, European farmers hope the trade talks will give them freer entry into the U.S. for their geographic region products – like Italian salamis or French cheeses.

Baudot says centuries-old gastronomic traditions in Europe depend on high-quality agriculture. He says for now European consumers' high standards ensure quality production and the survival of farmers. He fears a day when consumers will look only at the final sticker price of beef. And he believes a giant, free-trade market will bring that day only closer.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.
Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.
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