Stay Fit and Healthy

The US-EU trade deal could improve what you eat for dinner

 As President Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron stood smiling for the cameras at a press conference on free trade this week, the question remains - Does the average American care less whether the US has a good trade deal with Europe, or whether Europeans buy our products or we buy theirs. With over 12 million unemployed people at home, no one's worried about whether we have enough ripe cheese from France or beer from Germany.

But the  debate over food standards with the largest US trading partners will be negotiating what kinds of American food they want brought into their countries cheaply. Here's why what Europe wants matters: the EU, which loathes American food safety practices, could, by exerting pressure on the negotiations, actually end up improving the quality or variety of food available to Americans.

Right now, the American food supply is an issue of perpetual controversy. Hormones in meat and milk have many families – at least those who can afford organic options – rushing to pay more for a sense of safety.

The US food supply lacks variety: only a few crops dominate and major companies determine the extent and quality of the food supply – and they often prefer genetically modified seeds, bred to withstand herbicides but not fully tested in their long-term effect on human health. Three big companies, led by Monsanto, now control more than half of the global seed market and this impacts consumers’ pockets. For example the average cost of planting an acre of soybeans had risen 325% between 1995 and 2011."

Not surprisingly, this corporate pressure has induced American agriculture to favor the kind of crops that corporations can best control: genetically modified crops. About 93% of the soybean seeds in the United States are genetically modified, along with 88% of corn, 94% of cotton and 90% of sugarbeets, which provide about 54% of the sugar sold in America, as the HuffPo's blog has pointed out. McDonald's, one of the biggest buyers of potatoes, has an outsize influence on the shape of the US potato supply.

A lot is at stake: the EU is a powerful economic force and the US's most important trading partner, and this potential trade deal is an important one. It is worth at least $97bn to the United States and as much as $132bn to the rest of the world.

The sheer dollar value of a trade agreement – think of all those lovely dollars that we could use to boost our anemic GDP – means that the EU has financial clout in the US.

In fact, the EU has enough clout to finally convince the US government to clean up America's food supply, long given over to factory farming and the economic demands of agribusiness. If America wants to export more beef, chicken and crops to the European Union, it will have to make better products. The EU won't stand for the ones we're peddling now.

The EU looks down on American food safety and production practices, and with good reason. American meat production is heavily reliant on chemicals, from hormones to chlorine-bleach baths, and European officials and consumers largely reject these treatments and standards.

The US government is friendly to agribusiness interests; from the Supreme Court to the State Department.  Monsanto recently spurred a legislative provision preventing the government from taking action to stop genetically modified seeds, even if they were found to be harmful to the health of consumers. The GM giant's influence also seems to reach into the State Department, where officials travel the world singing the praises of genetically modified crops.

In the US, Big Agriculture calls the shots; the European Union argues that it shouldn't. A trade deal would be the testing ground for a battle over food standards to play out.

The EU has little love for Monsanto or other chemical companies with a stake in agribusiness, like Germany's BASF. The EU has approved only two genetically modified crops – corn from Monsanto and potatoes from BASF. Even those modest approvals have met cultural roadblocks. Eight EU countries, including France, Italy and Poland, have taken steps to ban Monsanto's GM corn. BASF, after seeking approvals for three of its potato varieties in Europe, gave up trying after a regulatory quest that took nearly four years.

All of which tells us that if the US wants to export more agricultural products through its trade agreement with the EU, things are probably going to have to change here, as well.

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