WASHINGTON – Europeans and Americans, linked by shared cultures and centuries of history, are about to face off over some of the toughest issues that divide them: cheese, wine, foie gras and steak.
Farm products will be a central part of negotiations aimed at creating a trade agreement between the United States and the 27-nation European Union, which was endorsed last week by President Obama and his counterparts across the Atlantic.
Both sides – whose economies collectively represent almost half the world’s output – say they’re ready to knock down barriers that for years have bedeviled their compatibility on trade. Few are greater than those dealing with food and agriculture, which raise thorny issues of national identity, ethnic pride and economic security.
We’ve fought over bananas, we retaliate against their beef ban with Roquefort cheese, said Alex McCalla, a professor of agricultural trade at the University of California-Davis. There has to be a more lucrative approach.
Getting to a deal that could add $200 billion in annual total trade between the two blocs will involve overcoming disparate views about genetically modified crops, livestock hormones, food safety and farm subsidies, according to analysts and economists. Complex regulatory structures, political opposition and competing perceptions of how farming should be done may also pose barriers.
It’s hard to see hormone-treated beef entering Europe, said Jean-Christophe Debar, head of Agri US Analyse, a Paris-based consultancy that advises the French Agriculture Ministry.
The potential windfall from a trade deal could keep negotiators at the table. The value of trade and investment between the U.S. and EU is already about $4.5 trillion a year.
An accord would cement their economic ties as the EU recovers from a sovereign-debt crisis and China increases its role in global commerce. Such a deal may also open markets for small farmers and large food companies including Archer-Daniels- Midland Co., Cargill Inc. and Barilla Holding.
Agriculture will be the toughest part of any negotiations, said Tim Burrack, 61, who raises more than 2,000 acres of corn and soybeans along with hogs on a farm near Arlington, Iowa.
He’s part of a farmers’ group called Truth About Trade & Technology, which pushes for greater acceptance of genetically modified goods.