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Letter From the Editor: Lessons about trade and food safety

Opinion

One of my many pleasant memories of Chile is the sunny Sept. 1 lunch served for 350 people in a huge white tent during the “Conference International Berries 2016” held in Talca. Most of the conversation was in Spanish, putting me at a disadvantage.

Every few minutes, I was getting some translated summaries from international trade attorney Thomas E. Skilton, managing partner of the Cameron law firm in Washington, D.C., and I was learning on my own about Chile’s excellent red and white wines.

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The Metropolitan Cathedral of Santiago was constructed from 1748 to 1800 to replace previous cathedrals destroyed by earthquakes.

Chile and the United States have a free trade agreement, or an FTA as they say, that was reached during the George W. Bush era. Tariffs over a few years were taken down to zero under the agreement. It’s been a win-win deal.

Overall, the U.S. exports much more to Chile now than it did before the FTA, and Chile’s food and agricultural exports to the U.S. have grown rapidly so they are now on par with its mainstay of export — copper.

With both Chile and the U.S. involved with the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), and since my translator is a top international trade attorney, I decided about midway through the discussions that were going on over lunch to see if we might turn the conversation toward trade.

I asked Thomas to ask how our hosts felt about the erosion in TPP support in the U.S., both from the two candidates for president and in Congress. Although these were among the most polite and diplomatic people I’ve ever had the pleasure of spending time with, I was probably expecting a political comment.

Instead, I got a response that I could not do justice to here, what with the translation and all. But in explaining the Chilean philosophy toward taking down the trade barriers, I learned that Chile has decided it will take down its own if its trading partner will take down theirs. Maybe you can see where this was going. The image of trading partners taking down their pants, with all the trust that implies, turned into a pretty good lesson about free trade.

The Chilean berry growers did seem resigned to the fact that American politics is going to hold up TPP, at least for a time.

There was an attempt this past week to breathe some life into the 12-nation TPP when Ohio’s Republican Gov. John Kasich was invited to the White House to lead a strategy discussion on how domestic support might be found for the issue.

President Obama will need lots more help if he is to gain support for the deal in the lame-duck congressional session coming after the Nov. 8 general election. Nobody would like that more than Obama, who seems to be sensing that he needs another item to put in his legacy column.

Kasich says TPP is a way of countering the influence of both China and Russia in the Pacific.

Beating up on TPP, however, is popular with both Democratic and Republican congressional candidates. After Nov. 8, some political analysts predict that the House will still be controlled by the GOP, but with a smaller and even more conservative majority.

These are the very members who, for our purposes, can be said to keep both their belts and suspenders on when it comes to multi-country trade agreements. They don’t want to drop their pants, no matter how good it might be for the U.S.

The only good thing about this holdup is that I won’t have to wade through as much email from parties who claim that TPP is a threat to food safety. People write me with those claims, and frankly, they’ve never made much sense. When you look closely at what they’re saying, it seems to come down to an argument that FTAs will lead the U.S. to importing more food.

Hate to break the news to those folks, but we are already importing food and beverages worth more than $120 billion a year, and we’ve gotten there with both two-party agreements and multi-party deals like TPP. An increasingly diverse America has a huge appetite for foreign food, and it is only going to increase.

Chile’s food safety agencies are structured very much like ours, and their investments and commitment are certainly on par with their partner in our dual trading relationship. The depth of the food safety capacity around the world has never been greater, and international agreements for its governance from Codex on down have never been more involved. Nobody has made a convincing case that trade agreements are going to upset the overall trend — continued improvements in world food safety.

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