An Urban's Rural View

Walk a Mile in the Europeans' Shoes -- Or Maybe a Half-Mile

Urban C Lehner
By  Urban C Lehner , Editor Emeritus
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In the spirit of walking a mile in another's shoes, let's examine, with as much sympathy as we can muster, the European Union's main agricultural demand in the U.S.-EU free-trade talks -- even though it's a demand one U.S. senator has called "ridiculous" and "absurd."

The EU limits the rights to more than 3,000 food names to producers in the areas where the products originated. Under this system of "geographical indications," or GIs, only ham produced in Germany's Black Forest can be called black forest ham; only cheese made in the Roquefort area of France can be called Roquefort.

In the negotiations to establish a Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or TTIP, the EU asks the U.S. to observe its GIs. American producers could still make Parmesan cheese and bologna but they could no longer market their products under those names.

This EU demand has rendered Congressmen apoplectic. Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas said, "This is totally ridiculous. We cannot let the European Union slant the playing field to their advantage through absurd restrictions on what a food can be named."

Tempting as it is to say, "You're right, senator," let's count to ten and consider how we'd feel if we were in the Europeans' shoes. A handful of American products are, in fact, protected by similar GIs, so let's conjure up a hypothetical example involving one of them: Idaho potatoes.

Imagine, for the purposes of this hypothetical, that the Idaho potato was an unusual species grown in an unusual way and commanded a premium price as a result. Now imagine that growers in, say, Belgium, started marketing their spuds as Idaho potatoes and winning business.

"False advertising," they'd be bellowing in Boise, along with "intellectual property theft" and "@?X%^$%QXZ*!#"

Well, that's how they feel in Bologna about bologna. It's hard to deny that they have a point.

But so do we. To see ours, just add a few facts to the hypothetical. Let's say the alleged intellectual-property thieves were descendants of immigrants from Idaho who had taken their potato-growing skills with them to Belgium. Let's say they'd been using the Idaho appellation for decades, introducing Europeans to the term and expanding the market for Idaho spuds in the process.

And now let's say the U.S. has come along and insisted they must call their product something else, forfeiting brand equity and sales.

That's what the Europeans are demanding of Americans who make Parmesan, feta and Stilton cheeses, many of whom have histories very much like that of the imaginary Idaho potato growers in Belgium.

Because both sides have a point, compromises are easy to imagine. Maybe we could agree to let Americans call their cheese Parmesan but restrict Parmigiano-Reggiano to cheese made in Italy. Maybe we let Americans use black forest ham on their labels but not the original German term schwarzwalder schinken. Maybe we let Americans market their brine-cured sheep's milk cheese as feta only if they specify its origins: Iowa feta, or Pennsylvania feta. It ought to be possible to be fair to both sides.

Without a compromise on GIs, it will be difficult to sell a TTIP deal to European farmers, who otherwise have little to gain. However much or little we sympathize with the European position, we can see that compromise on GIs might be in our interest. Otherwise a deal may not win the approval of Europe's member states.

You have to wonder, though, whether the Europeans understand they face the same dilemma with us. Do they grasp how difficult it will be to sell a TTIP deal to American farmers if the EU refuses to compromise on U.S. agricultural demands?

As things stand now, they're not only refusing to compromise on these demands; they're refusing to discuss them. They've vowed that their laws restricting genetically-engineered crops and hormone-treated beef "will not be part of the negotiations" (…).

In 1968 Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet Union's leader, declared that once a country was ruled by the Communist party it would always be ruled by the Communist party. Meanwhile, the Soviets continued to foment communist revolutions across the globe. Ronald Reagan's secretary of state, George Shultz, described the Brezhnev Doctrine as "What's theirs is theirs; what's ours is up for grabs."

There's a touch of Brezhnev-ism in the way the EU is approaching agricultural trade in the TTIP talks. It's one element of the EU's negotiating position that merits not even a half-mile of our sympathy.

Urban Lehner



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Roger Cooper
8/4/2014 | 7:18 AM CDT
We saved their sorry souls twice in 100 years at unbelievable costs and sacrifice and they still want to tell us how things should be or not be? They have big ones!
Bonnie Dukowitz
8/2/2014 | 6:12 AM CDT
COOL Labeling would solve the issue. "Grown and Processed in the USA"
Mary Boote
7/31/2014 | 11:43 AM CDT
Urban....really like where you took this important topic. Thank you! More please......Mary