By: Sybille De La Hamaide

Differences between the United States and the European Union over issues such as genetically modified crops and hormone-treated beef could scupper a free trade deal, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said on Tuesday.

The European Union and the United States hope to seal a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) that would encompass a third of world trade and nearly half of global gross domestic product.

The two sides have made limited progress after 11 negotiating rounds, however, and food and farming issues tend to be among the thorniest in trade negotiations.

"This is not going to be an easy discussion. We know there are serious issues," Vilsack told the EU Agricultural outlook conference hosted by the European Commission.

Vilsack singled out three issues that had to be addressed: European opposition to U.S. exports of beef and genetically modified organisms, and U.S. opposition to the EU's system of geographical indications, or designation of origin protection.

"If we don't address these difficult, tricky issues … decide not to deal with them because they are too hard, then in my view you are not going to have a TTIP agreement," he told reporters.

"The agricultural interests in the United States, by themselves, are not politically powerful enough to get an agreement passed, but they are certainly powerful enough to stop agreement that's been negotiated," he said.

The United States says science shows U.S. products from genetically modified crops to hormone-treated beef are safe, but those claims are met with suspicion in much of Europe.

Geographical indicators (GIs), a list of more than 1,000 products ranging champagne to Parma ham, are a cornerstone of EU farm and trade policy. They are designed to ensure only products from a specific region can carry a specific name. To the United States, that smacks of protectionism.

Like Vilsack, EU Commissioner Phil Hogan said progress had been achieved, but stressed the need to have a fair deal for both sides, mentioning access for EU dairy products, which face high tariff and sanitary barriers, and the protection of GIs. 

"I am convinced we can get a balanced outcome that will have the support of Europe's farm sector," he told the conference.

"But to achieve that balance, and to get the weight of the farm groups, member states and the European Parliament behind TTIP, Europe will need some gains too."

"I think this is all doable in 2016. But we need to start negotiating these things now," Hogan said.

(Editing by David Clarke)

Originally Published: Reuters