February 6, 2017

Withdrawal from TPP: What It Means for the US Food System

Krycia Cowling

Krycia Cowling

CLF-Lerner Fellow

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

Cargo ship, 1973

The public health community and the current administration align on very few issues – and yet the Republican president’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) might be a win for food systems and public health. Could it be?

A trade agreement such as the TPP is huge in scope—it affects many different stakeholders in different ways. In 2014 and 2015, Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future bloggers explored negative implications on issues such as antibiotic resistance, food sovereignty, and the ability of corporations to sue countries whose policies affect their profits.

On the other hand, for U.S. food and agricultural producers, our withdrawal from the TPP means fewer open foreign markets for U.S. products and, therefore, lost revenue. In general, U.S. agribusiness views getting out of the TPP as a missed opportunity to increase exports, primarily to Asia. The opinions of smaller farmers appear to be more split—some share the concerns of agribusiness (loss of export revenue), while others cite concerns about broader economic impacts and the U.S. food market.

Food safety advocates, for one, are glad to see the TPP go. As a Public Citizen post explains, the TPP could endanger the U.S. food supply with its requirement to accept the food inspection standards of partner countries broadly deemed as “equivalent,” instead of relying on U.S. procedures and institutions to evaluate the safety of imports. In other words, partner countries with weaker protections against acceptable limits for harmful substances or more lax inspection regimes could lower the bar, effectively permitting an influx of higher-risk food imports.

Another aspect of food safety threatened by the TPP is outlined by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, which explains how a range of policies based on evolving evidence may be challenged. Efforts to reduce the use of antibiotics and hormones in meat production or limit exposure to pesticides or veterinary drugs for which the long-term impacts are as yet unknown could all be thwarted. In a similar manner, TPP commitments may prevent a government’s ability to enact policies requiring certain types of food labeling. A health impact assessment of the TPP explored the likelihood that nutrition labels, such as “traffic light”-style labels for packaged foods, may be deemed incompatible with trade commitments. I also discuss this in a previous blogpost.

These regulatory conflicts involving food safety and food labeling in large part stem from commitments that subject all 12 TPP signatory countries’ policies to scrutiny from other signatory countries’ constituents (often, companies). This permits a domestic policy to be challenged in an international court, where the standard of evidence required to uphold a policy is often higher than the basis on which a government may elect to take preventive action (e.g. using the precautionary principle). In this regard, U.S. food industries and agribusiness have an aggressive track record: at the WTO, the U.S. challenged EU policies limiting exposure to GMO foods. The EU cited the precautionary principle as justification, while the U.S. claimed there was insufficient evidence to uphold such policies.

In addition to these food-related concerns, the public health community more broadly opposes the TPP on the grounds of several other important health issues, including access to medicines and tobacco control. The American Public Health Association is working on a brief summarizing these concerns; the sections on ISDS, nutrition, and right to regulate are particularly relevant to food and agriculture.

Looking forward

In order to prevent similar issues from arising in future trade agreements and to instead develop agreements that make more positive contributions to healthy and sustainable food systems and public health, a more diverse set of stakeholders and experts should be engaged in the negotiation phase. In 2014, the Obama administration pledged to establish a Public Interest Trade Advisory Committee, which would formally represent a broader range of issues of public concern in conversations with the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, but this has yet to be established. The 28 current Trade Advisory Committees are heavily weighted towards industry representatives.

The current President has made it clear that overhauling the U.S. trade regime is a key objective of his administration. While perhaps not the set of allies food and health advocates envisioned, trade’s moment at the top of the policy agenda presents a window of opportunity to raise these concerns and advocate for reform. Without such pressure, there is nothing to suggest these aspects of previous trade agreements will be changed, as they are not the concerns driving the President’s opposition to the TPP and other agreements. Among much else to worry about during the current administration, this may be one serendipitous advocacy opportunity.

Image: Cargo Ships and Bridge at Longview, U.S. National Archives
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