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Plucking a big bone in free-trade talks: food

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Obama himself was so wary of the EU relenting on its barriers to food imports that he insisted on a sign of good faith before agreeing to formal talks. The EU finally lifted its import bans on live pigs and beef carcasses cleaned with lactic acid.

Subsidies and other props for farmers are the largest expense in the EU budget. And EU tariffs on food imports average about 18 percent. During the talks with the US, France is expected to defend its artisanal products, such as cheese, that mark part of the French identity.

The EU is also sensitive to genetically modified food, and often uses a “precautionary principle” to ban food imports if scientific studies are inconclusive about a product’s safety. In the US, too, the dairy and sugar industries will probably defend the supports they now enjoy from government. US food tariffs range from 4 to 9 percent. 

“The agricultural-based disputes are rooted in different approaches to regulation, as well as different social preferences,” wrote Raymond Ahearn in a Congressional Research Service report last year.

As more countries become tied to the global supply chain, they must come to terms with being increasingly dependent on other nations for food. And as wealthy nations debate free trade among themselves, they must be aware of how their food policies affect the estimated 870 million people in the world who are hungry or the rural farmers in poor nations who can’t compete with food imports.

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