TBT: The Trade Term, Not The Tweet

In the hip world of social media, TBT stands for “throwback Thursday,” and for one day a week, it is among the online universe’s most used hashtags. TBT is a staple of modern-day marketing campaigns, designed to conjure up nostalgia, encourage dialogue and induce consumer endorsement. It looks something like this:

#TBT. do u remember @Wendys “where’s the beef” ads? i still luv that little ole lady…and those burgers.

In the admittedly less hip world of international trade, TBT is the acronym for technical barriers to trade. That may seem unexciting, but this TBT affects billions in commerce and may actually help answer the question “where’s the beef,” when it comes to exports.

To understand the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) TBT Agreement, it is important to first realize that it is different than the WTO’s Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures Agreement (SPS) – even though they are often lumped together and referred to synonymously.

The SPS Agreement sets forth the basic rules for food safety and animal and plant health. It provides a roadmap for a country to keep unsafe food, pests and animal disease from entering its borders and potentially jeopardizing the lives of its citizens and their property.

For example, if a country has an outbreak of a livestock disease that can kill herds and humans alike, other nations will likely stop its meat shipments under SPS procedures. Of course, some countries maintain SPS-related shipping restrictions long after the threat has subsided, leading to thorny trade disputes.

The TBT Agreement, meanwhile, is much broader. It extends to non-food products and encompasses less-defined issues like national security, environmental protection and general human health. In addition, TBT actions are not necessarily a cut-and-dry ban on trade and often result in regulatory burdens or cumbersome paperwork that slow imports.

As such, TBTs have become much easier to put in place - so much so that countries have informed the WTO of 25,000 TBT regulatory measures over the past 20 years. The pace of TBT actions is steadily rising too, with more than 2,200 being sent to WTO in 2014 alone.

With more and more traditional trade tariffs being eliminated through trade agreements, TBT use is likely to continue this upward trajectory. Even America’s best trading partners throw up these kinds of roadblocks, which is troubling because they often lack adequate justification or transparency and can result in tedious red tape.

The European Union is a prime example. The newest National Trade Estimate Report by the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) dedicated nearly 10 pages to list Europe’s TBTs against U.S. goods. Ranging from the kinds of gasses used in refrigeration appliances to onerous nutrition label mandates, biofuel reporting requirements and product definitions designed to make non-EU goods appear to be lower quality, the examples are numerous and troubling.

And that’s just the TBT actions. Throw in Europe’s controversial SPS measures, such as delayed approvals of biotech crops and common treatments to reduce meat pathogens, and America’s list of trade complaints grow significantly.

Add in other countries’ barriers beyond the EU, and you’ve built a near encyclopedia-thick list of schemes slowing the free flow of U.S. grains and grain products around the globe.

For instance, a TBT in Canada that requires the cumbersome registration of seed exports; Algerian requirements that imported food products have at least 80 percent of their shelf life remaining; and varying GMO food labeling measures in Ecuador, India, Peru, Taiwan and Turkey.

So what can be done about it? That's complicated.

The WTO process for identifying and addressing TBT and SPS concerns through consultation is time consuming and expensive, though the U.S. Grains Council (USGC) works with partners globally to help overcome these challenges when they emerge.

The better approach is to roll back barriers through regional and bilateral trade agreements like the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (T-TIP) being negotiated between the United States and the European Union, a process in which USGC is also actively involved on behalf of the feed grains industry.

Unfortunately, T-TIP’s fate is in question at the moment due in part to a surge in anti-trade fervor sweeping both continents – a hysteria that has coincidently been fueled by catchy social media campaigns limited to 140 characters instead of thoughtful discourse.

Such short-sightedness is perilous for the future of America’s grain producers, who depend on trade, and for the health of the rural economy, which depends on grain producers. Hopefully common sense will return soon, before hip marketers are left saying things like this:

#TBT. remember family farms and main street businesses? those were the good ole days.