supply management

Dairy Highlights Challenges to TPP Closure

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations did not close in Hawaii last month partly due to disagreements over dairy access.  Why did bargaining across 12 countries get so bogged down over milk and cheese market access?  What does the dairy dispute tell us about problems ahead?

Agriculture has historically been protected more than industrial goods, since nearly every country has particularly sensitivities around farming, farmers, and food.  The global trade regime under the GATT/WTO has made only modest inroads into agricultural trade so far, mostly by limiting tariffs in some sectors. 

The protection of agriculture has continued in various free trade agreements (FTAs) signed between WTO members, as Jo-Ann Crawford demonstrated by looking at 162 tariff schedules.  The countries in the sample varied in the extent of market liberalization for agricultural goods; however, overall, agricultural commitments made in trade agreements regularly omitted or excluded tariff lines.  The most frequent products carved out of FTAs include sugar (HS Chapter 17), miscellaneous edible preparations like coffee and tea (Chapter 21), beverages (Chapter 22), cereals (Chapter 10), dairy (Chapter 4), and meat (Chapter 2). 

This strategy for handling sensitive agricultural sectors—by simply excluding the items from market liberalization at all—was not supposed to take place in the TPP.  From the earliest days of discussions, officials took pains to announce that the TPP would contain “no exceptions.” 

Hence, even tough issues like dairy, sugar, meat and cereals (like rice and wheat) have had to be on the table for negotiations.  It will perhaps not surprise anyone to learn that these sectors, however, have been some of the very last items to be dealt with in the TPP. 

Canada apparently did not put forward an offer on dairy until just days ahead of Hawaii.  The original offer appears to have been a liquid milk equivalent tariff quota for all dairy products.  This gets rather complicated, but in short it meant that the partners could have access to a certain portion of Canada’s dairy market at lower tariff rates.  Once the quantitative cap was filled, everything after that would be charged (much) higher tariff rates.

Under a liquid milk equivalent scheme, all products made with milk, including cheeses, butter and all sorts of milk items would be interchangeable—in other words, partners could ship whatever form of dairy added up to the equivalent amount of liquid milk at lower tariffs up to the filling of the cap.  It could be that the entire cap could be filled with butter, leaving no room for cheese exporters, or the reverse. 

This is a deeply problematic outcome, however, for dairy exporters, as it is extremely difficult to determine what sort of outcomes farmers might receive in practice.  Quota systems are widely used in dairy and can sometimes be completely filled within a matter of weeks.  A sort of “blanket” quota would be even harder to judge since there could be no way to determine what portion of the quota other member countries might be able to fill or when.

Canada’s revised offer appears to have split up quotas for major subsectors of dairy.  This is an improvement, but still remains problematic.

The reason for Canadian delay in offering anything at all on dairy relates to specific domestic challenges.  Canada has a long-standing set of policies in place for dairy (and poultry) to protect the market against encroachment by (mostly) American dairy farmers. 

Under supply-management, the government has sheltered the dairy sector behind extremely high tariff walls (more than 300 percent, in some cases) and limited import quotas.  The system also includes complicated marketing boards that determine domestic prices, and controls on supply through the use of quotas per farmer for production. 

The net results of this system are a lucrative source of revenue for dairy farmers and extremely high dairy prices for Canadian consumers.  Efforts to dismantle or dramatically revise the system in the past have been complicated by the fact that the bulk of the 13,000 dairy farms in Canada are geographically concentrated in two important voting provinces.  While consumers would presumably benefit from cheaper products, like consumers worldwide, the average Canadian is not likely to rise up and lobby hard in favor of reduced dairy and poultry prices. 

Despite the soaring rhetoric of the TPP as a new kind of trade agreement better suited to the 21st century, dairy reforms in Canada will likely remain grounded firmly in the past.  Whatever happens, reform is likely to be limited, with changes to dairy phased in slowly over long time horizons.

Canada is not the only country, of course, with complex systems of support in place for dairy production.  Japan’s butter market follows a similar pattern—the government controls import volumes and prices and uses high tariff walls.  The result is that Japanese consumers pay more than triple the international price for butter and even experience shortages.

Like in Canada, however, consumers are not carrying protest signs around the trade ministry begging for lower butter prices. 

In the absence of visible support from consumers, officials are mostly getting an earful now from potentially disadvantaged firms.  It might be expected that industries that rely on dairy as an input, including all sorts of food manufacturers, bakeries, restaurants, and so forth would be working hard to convince governments that cheaper products could also be beneficial.  While some of this is undoubtedly taking place, their efforts are likely modest. 

Even firms that could be clear winners can be withholding visible support.  Many argue that, in the absence of a text that clearly lays out the extent and scope of changes that are coming, they cannot say anything at all. 

But once the agreement is finished and revealed, whatever (likely modest) changes are included for dairy are likely to provoke backlash from entrenched interests that benefit from current schemes.  Expect to hear loud calls for maintaining systems that “benefit small, family farms” and “produce high quality, safe food products” and “ensure adequate domestic supplies of dairy and dairy products.” 

Such complaints will be made even though: domestic farms remain set to continue to dominate markets; many farms could carve out an advantage in exporting; TPP products are of similar or equal quality; and supplies of products like butter, milk powder and cheeses are likely to increase.

Groups that feel under threat will not likely sit quietly.  Simply having the text available will not settle the issues.  

In the face of what can appear to be overwhelming support for the status quo, officials and political leaders can go wobbly.  They can backtrack on commitments for market opening and threaten to undo or torpedo the entire deal. 

A similar scenario will happen in various other sectors of agriculture and elsewhere.  Revealing the specifics of the compromises made in each of the 12 member countries is likely to set off vigorous debates.  Firms and industries that have decided to sit on the sidelines until the text is released may be joining the battle much too late. 

***Talking Trade is a blog post written by Dr. Deborah Elms, Executive Director, Asian Trade Centre, Singapore***

Defending the Indefensible in TPP

As the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade negotiations head towards conclusion, I am increasingly fielding questions from people about the challenging final issues that remain.  This post covers a range of topics that stem largely from officials trying to defend policies that appear indefensible to outsiders.  Most are rooted in specific local politics or interpretations of domestic conditions that may be under threat in the TPP.

Why is Japan fighting so hard for rice protections?  My interviewer on CNBC this week asked again why Japan’s government is ready to fight to the finish over issues of rice.  After all, the agricultural sector in Japan contributes a tiny sliver to overall economic output.  The average age of Japan’s farmers is heading towards 70 and very few farm full-time.  In exchange for historical protections that include a rice tariff of 777 percent to keep out foreign polished rice, Japanese consumers pay extraordinarily high prices for rice and agricultural products of all sorts.

This situation is not unique to Japan.  Like many countries, the political system has been stacked in favor of rural voters, who are overweighted in the parliament relative to their population size. 

Mansur Olsen, the Nobel-prize winning economist, highlighted problems of collective action several decades ago.  While it is true that consumers as a whole would benefit from lower rice and agricultural prices, the problems of collective action mean that these diffuse interests rarely result in activity by large groups that would receive modest benefits.  By contrast, Japanese rice farmers clearly grasp the competitive challenges that they will face from the removal of barriers to trade.  They have every incentive to make their unhappiness known in loud and clear terms to political leaders.

In Japan, these concentrated agricultural producer interests can be further funneled to politicians and bureaucrats through a strong and entrenched bureaucracy of their own.  Japanese farmers are also brought together by JA Zenchu, an agricultural cooperative that (for the moment) comes with large numbers of staff and considerable economic strength.  They can mobilize significant numbers of voters and ensure that their supporters make it to the polls on election day.

Why are the Americans fighting so hard on auto tariff reductions?  The United States currently levies a 2.5% tariff on imported passenger cars.  In the TPP, Japan is pushing hard to get this tariff eliminated as soon as possible.  Like all TPP rules, it would apply to TPP member firms only and would not be extended (through the TPP) to other country companies.

What makes American opposition to tariff reductions so puzzling is that much of Japan’s auto production now takes place inside the United States and the rest of North America.  As a result of the rules set down more than 20 years ago in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), auto producers that want to take advantage of the agreement must produce a substantial percentage of the final vehicles in NAFTA countries.  Hence, few Japanese autos are likely to benefit from a lowering of tariffs on autos in the TPP since most are already created inside the American domestic marketplace where they have never paid tariffs on the final products.

For more than 30 years, the U.S. auto industry has been uncomfortable with Japan’s access to the American market.  Maintaining a minor tariff for a substantial length of time is one way to help encourage wavering members of Congress to avoid blocking the TPP agreement on behalf of the domestic auto industry. 

Why can’t Canada change the supply management system for dairy and poultry?  The TPP is supposed to be a high quality, 21st century trade agreement that includes all products with no exceptions and a goal of lowering tariffs to zero.  In this context, the myriad system of supports that Canada uses to protect domestic dairy and poultry farmers from competition (primarily from the Americans) ought to be phased out over time.

But Canada faces the same sort of collective action problems on agricultural reform that Japan confronts.  Although Canada’s consumers would clearly benefit from lower prices on a wider range of dairy and egg products, the industry is much better organized and can mobilize significant resources to fight change.  So far, the industry has been impressively successful in keeping supply management off the negotiating table, including (so far) in the TPP talks.

Why won’t the Americans open up the domestic sugar market to Australian sugar?  This question stems from an odd quirk in the current negotiating environment in the TPP.  Although officials are aiming for a high quality result, negotiators have to operate in a world of existing, overlapping trade agreements from the past.  These previous deals will not go away once the TPP is signed.

In an existing bilateral trade agreement between the United States and Australia, sugar was carved out or excluded from the deal.  At the time, it was part of a “grand bargain” of sorts that let Australia carve out investor-state dispute settlement while the Americans protected their sugar industry.  If Australia gets better access to the American sugar market in the TPP, it will undermine the provisions of the past deal.

The sugar industry in the United States has been amazingly well protected since WWII.  Production of sugar cane is highly concentrated in a handful of farmers.  But production of sugar beets is spread much more widely.  Large numbers of members of the U.S. Congress represent states or districts that grow sugar across diverse and politically important parts of the country.   These representatives have always responded to the money and influence of the domestic sugar lobby and the TPP is no exception.  Sugar changes in the TPP that would allow greater imports of Australian sugar have been vigorously fought off.

Why don’t American union groups support the TPP?  This question came to me with great puzzlement at a meeting of ASEAN trade union leaders this week in Kuala Lumpur.  From their perspective, any agreement that raises economic growth is likely to result in additional jobs.  With new markets opening up that were previously closed or difficult and expensive to penetrate, firms have new opportunities for expansion and job creation.

Yet American labor leaders have come out loudly and vocally against the TPP.  Union membership in the United States has been falling for some time.   Labor leaders fear that TPP changes will exacerbate the loss of union jobs in the United States, since many union members are blue-collar workers. 

What is especially strange about the objection to the TPP by labor leaders is that most union members are actually government employees of all stripes, including teachers or public health care employees, who are unlikely to be affected by this trade agreement.  The fastest growing segment of unionization is taking place among services employees.  If the TPP leads to economic growth, the service sector is also likely to expand.  Many of these jobs, like hotel and restaurant workers, are not going to be outsourced.  In fact, it could certainly be argued that easier movement of people across the TPP for business travel and tourism should bring additional jobs to American services union workers. 

We can argue about the quality of such jobs and the appropriate pay scales for workers, but the TPP should not affect either of these elements of service sector union jobs.

Why are some TPP members fighting over specific rules changes for one class of medicines?  One of the most hotly contested arguments in the entire TPP agreement has been about appropriate patent length protections for a class of pharmaceutical medicines.  Should biologic drugs receive 5, 8 or 12 years of coverage before going off patent and becoming available to generic drug manufacturers? 

What is strange about this fight is that biologic drugs like the flu vaccines are extremely hard to manufacture.  They cannot be easily reverse engineered.  Each dose can be unique, as biologic drugs are not simple copies of one another. 

Most TPP members do not have (and may never have) the capabilities to manufacturing pharmaceutical products.  Even fewer will be able to create biologic medicines.  Thus, the fight over patent length protection does not make sense for most members.  However, many countries appear to have seized on this issue as a tool for achieving their negotiating objectives elsewhere in the agreement.  It is more of a bargaining chip than a serious point of disagreement.

Closing a deal is hard.  Given the nature of trade negotiations, the most difficult, politically sensitive issues are left to the very end of discussions.  It is only after the broadest balance of interests is largely hammered out that leaders can make a clear-eyed assessment of their total gains and losses throughout a complex negotiation.  Given the determination of benefits and challenges, countries will decide whether they will continue to defend largely economically indefensible policies or whether such programs will be adjusted in the wake of the TPP.  The time for sorting out such decisions and making appropriate calculations is now.

***Talking Trade is a blog post written by Dr. Deborah Elms, Executive Director, Asian Trade Centre, Singapore***