`Olive Oil and Trade Talks - Olive Oil Times

Olive Oil and Trade Talks

By Virginia Brown Keyder
Jul. 24, 2013 11:50 UTC

Sometimes a style or an ide­ol­ogy becomes so dom­i­nant that it is reflected every­where. Just as every­thing from lux­ury yachts to cars to steam irons and vac­uum clean­ers has all come to resem­ble run­ning shoes, so the mar­ket’ is now the only cri­te­rion for judg­ing any­thing hav­ing to do with give and take among humans.

Negotiations’ have recently begun on the right flank (or left, depend­ing on whether you are on the ground or in outer space) of the US’s mas­sive eco­nomic car­rion bird called trade’ — mate to the illus­tri­ous bank­ing vam­pire squid — the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.’ (The Transpacific Trade Partnership” or TPP, pro­vides the req­ui­site avian sym­me­try.) As part of the process, eco­nomic actors are being asked for their two cents. As usual, the plain­tive cry of We only want an equal play­ing field’ is the cho­rus sung by sec­tors from air­craft to olive oil.

As we all know, olive oil is a com­plex prod­uct. It rep­re­sents dietary health in a cul­ture where big pharma, with its pills and potions for every­thing from weight loss and cho­les­terol to exer­cise and hap­pi­ness, pretty much occu­pies the field. It’s no coin­ci­dence that schools and hos­pi­tals — insti­tu­tions that should log­i­cally pri­or­i­tize good diet — have become syn­onyms for bad food. Olive oil rep­re­sents the essence of the Mediterranean good life, while the Mediterranean itself is cast as cor­rupt and men­da­cious. And it rep­re­sents hope for Indian masses plagued by heart dis­ease and dia­betes while ris­ing prices of the most healthy olive oils doom them to life among the global one per­cent.

In a state­ment dated May 30, 2013, Alexander Ott, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the American Olive Oil Producers Association, out­lined the posi­tion U.S. pro­duc­ers would like to see pre­sented in the upcom­ing trade talks. While much of what he said is well known to any­one who fol­lows the sec­tor, some unfa­mil­iar points also emerge. One is that US pro­duc­ers are not only inter­ested in claim­ing a larger (than the cur­rent 2 per­cent) share of the U.S. mar­ket, but an entry in the European mar­ket itself. Citing the growth of U.S. almonds and pis­ta­chios as mod­els (Mr. Ott wrongly claims these mar­kets were fed exclu­sively by imports until 20 – 30 years ago, when in fact both were intro­duced into the U.S. in the 1850s, though they have grown con­sid­er­ably over the given period), he uses the oft-touted refrain that the only rea­son for the U.S. not hav­ing a strong olive oil indus­try is the EC olive oil pro­grams.”

The prob­lems with this posi­tion are many. The EU is one of the biggest importers of olive oil in the world, so the mar­ket can­not be that restricted. But it is the insin­u­a­tion that EU sub­si­dies are designed to wall out com­peti­tors and enrich big Mediterranean pro­duc­ers at the expense of the strug­gling Californian salt of the earth rep­re­sents a dis­torted view of what many would mis­tak­enly call the free mar­ket’ at its finest. Yes, the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), the source of farm sub­si­dies, is renowned for fraud, and yes, some of this occurs in the olive oil sec­tor. This has been redressed in demands for the return of fraud­u­lent pay­ments in the past, and is sharply addressed in the new 2014 – 2020 CAP pro­pos­als, which call for among other things a marked rise in trans­parency and penal­ties for fraud. While main­tain­ing the fun­da­men­tal goals of the CAP, i.e. to assure food secu­rity, pro­tect the envi­ron­ment and main­tain the eco­nomic via­bil­ity of rural com­mu­ni­ties the new CAP will ben­e­fit only active farm­ers, pri­or­i­tize aid to young farm­ers, and increase aid to less-favored areas. New com­pe­ti­tion reg­u­la­tions will fol­low for spe­cific prod­ucts, among them olive oil.

Mr. Ott’s sub­mis­sion con­tains a wealth of impor­tant infor­ma­tion, in par­tic­u­lar, its chart out­lin­ing the dif­fer­ences among olive oil stan­dards around the world. Two things need to be noted, how­ever. First, TTIP is self-admit­tedly not about tar­iffs, which are already his­tor­i­cally low. Secondly, what con­cerns the EU — envi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion, social jus­tice and the qual­ity of rural life — show few signs of attract­ing any atten­tion in the U.S., where raw mar­ket prin­ci­ples dom­i­nate every dis­course, from health to edu­ca­tion, from food to energy. Whether any com­mon ground will emerge in the two wings of U.S. trade pol­icy is anyone’s guess, but under cur­rent apples and oranges’ con­di­tions, it seems unlikely.


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