Wolff: WTO has role in helping countries meet food safety objectives

By Joseph James Whitworth

- Last updated on GMT

Picture: iStock.
Picture: iStock.

Related tags International trade

The World Trade Organization (WTO) can play a role in helping countries realize food safety and security objectives, according to its deputy Director-General.

Alain Wolff said progress can be made in 2018 and beyond.

“These include limitations on domestic support, improved understandings on the use of and for transparency with respect to export restrictions, and the reduction and removal of trade barriers to provide improved market access,” ​he said at the Global Forum for Food and Agriculture (GFFA) in Berlin earlier this week.

Openness to trade increases availability of food by enabling products to flow from surplus to deficit areas, accelerates sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) regulations reducing unnecessary barriers and contributes to the reduction of price volatility.

Among the most frequent measures in the agricultural and food trade are SPS measures, technical regulations as well as standards and customs procedures.

SPS agreement balance

The WTO SPS Agreement is a balance between the right of countries to impose measures to promote human, animal and plant life and health while avoiding unnecessary restrictions to trade.

Resolved cases include New Zealand challenging SPS measures imposed on its apples by Australia and the European Union banning imports of sardines from Peru before the parties reached a solution.

“In 2017, members reported the partial or complete resolution of 29 specific trade concerns,”​ said Wolff.

The world's population is expected to go from 7 billion to 9.6 billion by 2050 and food supplies need to rise by 60% during the next three decades to avert hunger in the most vulnerable countries.

Examples of WTO partnerships relating to SPS capacity include boosting fruit and vegetable exports from Thailand and Vietnam, promoting safety in Nigeria’s sesame and shea exports and supporting producers and traders in Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia to meet pesticide standards for export.

The global agricultural food system has been transformed due to globalization and advances in technology, said Wolff.

“Horticultural products such as berries, apples and pears, that could never have been shipped over long distances, now can be with refrigerated containerization. As consumers, we benefit from varieties of products during all seasons of the year.”

Negotiation challenge

The worldwide average bound tariff on all goods is 6.8% while the applied rate is 3.2%. For agricultural goods the average bound rate is 54.8% while the applied rate is 14.6%.

Wolff said agricultural trade is not an easy subject to negotiate and further improvements can be made to make it more responsive to contemporary challenges.

“Some domestic support measures still create significant distortions to global agricultural trade.

“With such vast sums, it is necessary for new disciplines to be developed, otherwise the agricultural trading system could be greatly distorted with severe adverse effects on the economies of poor developing countries dependent on agriculture for the livelihoods and the food security of their peoples.

“These countries cannot and should not compete with large amounts of support provided by their competitors.”

Export restrictions and trade barriers can also have an impact, said Wolff.

“WTO members have the right to take appropriate measures to prevent or relieve critical shortages of foodstuffs on their domestic markets.

While regulatory measures are essential for the functioning of modern economies, they can also have an adverse effect on trade in food products and can inadvertently, or worse, purposely, discriminate against imports.”

FAO and WTO publication on trade and food standards

Helping develop international food standards for trade is crucial to reap the benefits, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and WTO.

The agencies called for deeper involvement​by developing countries in the food standard setting processes in Codex Alimentarius and WTO's SPS and Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT) Committees.

Traceability is increasingly obligatory for rapid response to foodborne disease outbreaks.

Roberto Azevêdo, WTO Director-General, said when standards and international trade work hand-in-hand they help to promote food safety.

“In a world without common standards for food, producers would have to comply with hundreds of different requirements in each market, covering things like residue limits for pesticides, or a range of composition and quality standards,” ​he said.

“For companies, especially smaller ones, this would create huge barriers to participating in international trade. For consumers, it would be confusing and costly.”

FAO and WTO said drivers of change in food regulation include digitalization, new production and processing technologies, e-commerce, labelling trends, new trade deals and changing dietary and consumer preferences.

The agencies added all these factors will have an impact on the trade and food safety landscape.

“Such developments pose formidable challenges to many developing countries, where food control, inspection and certification systems are often in their infancy and supply chains are often fragmented and not well developed,”​ said WTO and FAO.

José Graziano da Silva, FAO Director-General, said food safety and standards are crucial to unlock trade - which is important to fight hunger.

“Public and private sectors, operators from all parts of the food value chain, civil society organizations, academic and research institutions - all have essential roles in developing sound and credible systems of food safety management.”

Related topics Policy Food Safety & Quality

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