US keen to include agriculture in EU trade talks: Perdue

The US government is keen to include agriculture in the trade talks with the EU, according to the US Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue.

The Trump administration believes agriculture must be part of any trade deal with Europe, Perdue said Wednesday during his ongoing EU tour. “If we (the US) are going to have any kind of trade deal with the EU, then agriculture needs to be a part of it.”

Europe is an important agricultural market for the US agro products, including soybeans.

In 2018-19 marketing year (July-June), the EU — world’s second largest soybean importer – purchased 15 million mt of beans, according to the European Commission report released Monday.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue this fall unveiled a Trump administration program that aims to “move more able-bodied” food stamp recipients “towards self-sufficiency” and into employment. Perdue is shown here at a 2018 event with the president. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The EU and Trump administration first agreed on a partial trade deal in July 2018, with Europeans agreeing to buy more US-origin soybeans. As a result, the US soy comprised over 65% of total EU soybean purchases in 2018-19, a rise of over 35 percentage points year on year.

For President Donald Trump, soybean farmers are an important support group, and so the US could push for more exports to the EU, sources said. If the US-EU trade talk does include agriculture, then the American soybean farmers may ship more beans across the Atlantic.

EU-US trade talks might hit some roadblocks on key agricultural issues, including chlorinated chicken and hormone-treated beef imports, trade sources said.

The Europeans had banned import of poultry products treated with chlorine dioxide on food safety issues since 1997, while hormone-treated beef imports have been barred in the EU since 1989 over health concerns.

Below is a full rush transcript of the press conference by U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue.

Secretary Perdue:  We’ve had a very productive trip here in the European Union.  We began in Brussels where I had the occasion to meet with three of the commissioners – Commissioner Hogan as well as the commissioner of health, food safety, and then our agricultural trade commissioner as well.  They were very productive, very good conversations.  I think the opportunity to reset our U.S.-EU relationship is there.  I think everyone had visited and seen the great conversation between the president of the EU and our President Trump at Davos, and we’re hopeful that we can really conclude these things in weeks and not months.

Then I went to also the Council of State Agricultural Ministers.  I was surprised at the – really, agreement of issues that we had.  There were very few disagreements.  I think it’s a matter of how we implement the things that we know how to do.  And also, this is the European Food Forum caucus members that the parliament had a great discussion there, dynamically.  

And then, obviously, very fruitful trip up to the Netherlands.  We’ve seen this technology come to the U.S. and the greenhouse technology, but we were able to visit at the famous university there in Rotterdam and then also went to a private sector cooperative class that was demonstrating how to use this technology.  It was very fascinating in many aspects.  And then we’ve been to Rome the last day, and this is with our Director General Qu at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN here as well as our U.S. representatives there.  Had a nice dinner, very casual dinner with the director general last night where we talked about the mission of feeding the world and what it will take as we work together to fulfill the FAO mission as well as our moral mission around the world to do that.  

Question:  “What sort of trade relationship do you envisage having with the UK if the government here refuses to accept agricultural goods produced at lower environmental or welfare standards than our own legal minimum?”

Secretary Perdue:  Well, I think again when you look at the trade disparity from a dollar perspective, $10 to $12 billion trade deficit in the United States with about twice as many consumers than the EU, with two-thirds of the arable land, we think that is unsustainable and unreasonable.  I would certainly disagree with the premise of the statement that these are made with lower environmental standards.  We are producing by international Codex standards, international IPPC, or the plant protection standards around the world, and we would not expect Europe to lower standards than those, but they have agreed with them internationally and I think it’s a matter of complying with international standards that we all have worked together to contribute to.

So we’re not asking Europe to lower standards.  We’re asking them to use sound science in their recognition of safe products that their consumers could benefit from as they are in great demand in the EU.

Question: “Following the meetings with EU officials, do you foresee the inclusion of a chapter on agriculture in the trade deal negotiations?  Are there specific agricultural products that could be included and others excluded?”

Secretary Perdue:  Well, we do expect agriculture to be part of the discussion.  I think that’s the only way that we believe that this trade discrepancy between the United States and the EU can be realized.  I think our President understands that agricultural products need to be part of that.  We are a very productive country, and again, as I said, with twice the number of consumers than the EU.  It doesn’t make sense to have an agricultural product trade deficit with the – between the United States and the EU.  I think, again, it doesn’t really depend on individual products or sectors; it depends on recognizing international standards which are safe and healthy on both sides.  We use them in the United States.  We’re not asking the European consumer to consume or to accept anything that our U.S. consumers are not already and have been consuming for a while, as well as all of the wonderful guests that we have from the European Union traveling to the United States also use them.

Question:  The EU is talking about picking individual products and seeing whether progress can be made on standards there, a mutual recognition of safety standards.  So how is a deal within weeks, which you evoked, going to – what might it look like?  What are the parts of this deal?

Secretary Perdue:  Well, I framed my comments based on the fact that it is not within our purview as the Secretary of Agriculture to negotiate trade deals.  That remains with the U.S. Trade Ambassador Lighthizer as well as Secretary of Commerce Ross and our President.  So we don’t want to forecast anything that may or may not be on the table in that way.  We do think it has to do with standards.  We believe there are many products that if the European Union accepted the sound science of international standards then we could reconcile this trade discrepancy fairly easy.  We’ve given – as the Secretary of Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture, we’ve given a number of non-tariff trade barriers that the EU has against the United States and we believe all of those will probably be on the table for discussion.

Question:  “How important is the UK market for the U.S., especially in regard to beef?”

Secretary Perdue:  Well, the European market is very, very important in many – in many ways for many different products.  We are really of a similar heritage culturally and ancestrally, and we have much more in common than we have differences.  This was demonstrated in our conversation at the Council of Ag Ministers at Brussels.  I think, again, the willingness and the desire for everyone to be aligned is there.  It’s a matter of implementing that and standing up for scientific standards against people who would call for unreasonable standards based on fear – based out of fear that have no basis in science.  That will take courageous leadership against a populous there that has come to fear food, and that’s an unreasonable expectation.  

So I think, again, we will have a large – you have a large population here, you have a very good income, a very affluent society here, and you appreciate and value high-quality food here in the EU, and that’s exactly what we like in a market, that’s exactly what U.S. producers produce.

Question:  Looking at the trade negotiations between the U.S. and the UK, how critical do you think agriculture is going to be?  Do you expect it will be a deal-breaker?

Secretary Perdue:  No, I don’t – I don’t think we’re thinking anything will be a deal-breaker.  We’re looking to come together, really like-minded people, understanding that our – both of our economies benefit.  Both the EU, the UK, and the United States benefit when we have free and reciprocal trade and that’s really what our objective is, is to come to a conclusion where we can accept one another’s products freely based on sound scientific standards, rather than inordinate fears.

Question: “EU President Ursula von der Leyen has talked up the prospect of a mini trade deal in a few weeks.  We know it wouldn’t be a major FTA, and Mr. Perdue has said that apples, pears, and shellfish would not cut it for an agreement, but are there some things you’re looking at on a regulatory alignment perhaps that could offer the possibility of a small win?”

Secretary Perdue:  Well, again, I don’t know the definition of mini versus a trade deal.  We’re looking to reconcile the trade imbalance between the United States and the European Union and have been wanting it in the range of $10 to 12 billion.  We’ve offered our U.S. Trade Representative and a list of things on non-trade barriers, non-tariff trade barriers that we think could get us there.  They deal with issues like pathogen reduction treatments, accepting international standards of maximum residue levels in food that is entirely safe.  And so we think we can have a trade deal there that is not necessarily a quick just deal to say we have a deal; we’re looking for real substance there and, again, lowering the trade deficit or really resolving the trade deficit between the United States and the EU in agricultural products.

Question:  You were saying that there were very few disagreements between the American side and the European relationships, but I understand that there is a different approach to what is called GMOs, the new breeding method of a GMO.  Have you been talking about that?  And how do you see – is there any approaches between the two?  Or how do you see the future of the debate of this new technology?

Secretary Perdue:  Well, we have been talking about it.  I found that’s one area where we’ve found a lot of agreement and many of your nation-states are talking about new breeding techniques.  Even your own minister in Germany recognized that to remain competitive economically with economic sustainability, we’re going to have to look at these techniques.  I think it’s absolutely wrong what the European Court decided regarding new non-transgenic breeding techniques comprising GMOs, and I think that’s the wrong decision.  I believe that the European Parliament will be dealing with that to recognize the fact that that is not the case, so we hope that will be recognized.  

But when you start to talk about non-transgenic CRISPR-9 technology of new breeding techniques which only expedite the natural breeding that could take place over several generations, which require years to be able to be done in an expeditious manner, we think that’s the kind of sound science that in order to feed the world, a growing population, we’re going to have to take advantage of.  I find that most of your ag ministers in the European Union agree with that.

Question: “UK Ag Secretary Theresa Villiers has claimed that no hormone-implanted beef or chlorine-washed chicken will enter the UK as part of any future trade deal between the UK and the U.S.  Is she right to say this?”

Secretary Perdue:  No, I think it’s very unfortunate and very short-sighted that she would make those kind of declarations.  I think we need to trade based on sound science and safety in health and nutrition.

Secretary Perdue:  Well, thank you for facilitating this conversation and I very much appreciate the questions.  I think they were certainly pertinent and to the point.  And all I’m asking, all we’re asking from the United States, is that we make sound food decisions for the future based on sound science that we can all agree upon rather than the political science of fear.