Public concerns about potential health impacts of international trade agreements were central to the widespread protests during the TTIP (EU-US) and CETA (EU-Canada) trade negotiations. A diverse group of organisations has developed their vision of how future negotiations could offer a better deal for food in terms of quality, consumers’ rights, farmers, producers’ income, as well as better jobs and working conditions in the food sector.
EPHA together with Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO), European Federation of Food, Agriculture and Tourism Trade Unions (EFFAT), European Milk Board (EMB), and Friends of the Earth Europe (FoEE) explored today’s main barriers to a healthy European food system and emphasised the following issues to be addressed:
Price competitiveness & yield maximisation – the current focus on delivering price competitiveness and on maximising yield results in a very narrow definition of value in the food system. The external costs (to society and to the environment) are not reflected in production costs, or in the prices paid by consumers. This narrow focus also fails to value the nutritional quality of diets and encourages the increasing use of antimicrobials (including antibiotics), excessive use of which contributes to water pollution and to antimicrobial resistance.
Investment protection & regulatory cooperation – the Investor Court System (ICS) and other similar investment protection mechanisms encroach on governments’ right to regulate in the interest of public health through the threat of sanctions and costly litigation by health harming industries. Regulatory cooperation, a key principle in current EU trade negotiations, so far appears to be synonymous with a race-to-the-bottom to lower standards in the interests of increasing trade, harming efforts to create a healthy European food system.
Industry investment – numerous studies have linked foreign direct investment (FDI) and the associated market penetration of multinational food corporations with a shift towards “western” diets – resulting in an increase in consumption of energy-dense, processed foods, high in fat, sugar and salt. The dominance of these products contributes to the spread of obesity and other non-communicable diseases (NCDs).
Inequality – the impacts of trade policies affect society in asymmetric ways, with the poorest affected most. Those on the lowest incomes are most sensitive to changes in food prices. Opening markets tends to result in unhealthy highly processed food products falling dramatically in price, leading to increased consumption and worsening health, particularly among disadvantaged socio-economic groups.
In EPHA’s vision, EU trade policy should promote a healthy European food system by creating the conditions to make the healthy option the easiest option, taking into account a range of factors such as the quantity, diversity, and relative prices of foods available for consumption, as well as the way in which they are marketed and promoted.
A healthy food system should also ensure food quality, reducing dependence, intensive animal farming methods, contributing to problems such as antimicrobial resistance. Trade policies should support action to reduce alcohol-related harm, promoting high social, public health, and environmental standards. Above all, trade deals must not impinge on the right of governments to legislate to protect and improve public health, rather than prioritising protection for investors which could be used to undermine crucial policies and standards designed to promote better health.
In EPHA’s vision, regulatory cooperation, in the context of trade, need not amount to deregulation. Trade policy can be used to promote a race to the top, on the basis of an agreed, evolving set of principles which promote healthy and sustainable diets, within the framework of a sustainable farming and food system. EU trade policy should encourage governments to take positive steps to protect human health and the environment through food and agriculture policies, ensuring they are not threatened with potential litigation through private investment courts when they do take such actions. Investments that fall within the remit of EU treaties should comply with investment guidelines addressing public health, social and environmental goals, including promoting food safety and quality, reducing or countering agricultural impacts on climate change, air quality, the environment, biodiversity, and preventing the spread of anti-microbial resistance.
Finally, EU trade policy should aim to reduce inequality, ensuring the health and wellbeing of the poorest in society are not disproportionately damaged. A comprehensive health impact assessment, including investigating the impact on health inequalities should be undertaken in advance of each EU trade deal. To date, sustainability impact assessments are not taken seriously, and are usually delivered much too late in the process to inform negotiating priorities.
EPHA’s contribution can be downloaded below.