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 have 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 renown 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.