WTO Members discuss possible work programme on sustainable agriculture and related issues

At a meeting of the Committee on Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) Measures on 15-16 July, WTO members discussed how to further enhance the implementation of the SPS Agreement in light of the opportunities and pressures created by the evolution of the global agricultural landscape. Some members suggested launching this work on sustainable agriculture and related issues through a proposed SPS Declaration for the 12th WTO Ministerial Conference (MC12), while others preferred to undertake this work in the SPS and other WTO committees.

Looking ahead to 21st century challenges in the implementation of the SPS Agreement and its impact on global food production systems and the future of trade, discussions revolved around the new version of the proposed SPS Declaration (G/SPS/GEN/1758/Rev.7) for MC12 scheduled to take place in Geneva on 30 November-3 December. The SPS Declaration is now co-sponsored by 29 delegations: Argentina, Australia, Belize, Brazil, Burkina Faso, Cabo Verde, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Côte d’Ivoire, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, The Gambia, Guatemala, Honduras, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Paraguay, Peru, Senegal, Singapore, Tajikistan, Togo, the United States, Uruguay and Viet Nam.

The intention of the Declaration, co-proponents said, is to recognize and examine the SPS impact on global issues, such as climate change, biodiversity loss, sustainability of food systems, food security and the need for innovation, and how the SPS Committee could contribute to these discussions. Co-sponsors observed considerable common ground and urged members to remain optimistic that it will be possible to achieve consensus on this important forward-looking initiative as a vital contribution to the success of the upcoming 12th Ministerial Conference.

Co-proponents underscored that the proposed Declaration, “Responding to Modern SPS Challenges”, underlines the benefits of the SPS Agreement to all WTO members, and reaffirms the continuing importance of adhering to its obligations. Using a science-based approach, the Declaration would initiate a work programme to consider how to further enhance the implementation of the SPS Agreement in light of the opportunities and pressures created by the evolution of the global agricultural landscape. The text would also provide an opportunity to raise awareness within the broader WTO community, including trade ministers, of the relevance of the SPS Agreement and the challenges ahead. The SPS Committee would achieve this through, among other things, a report to the 13th Ministerial Conference with key findings and consensus recommendations.

Acknowledging that the global transformation of food systems is at a turning point and that a strong response to current global health and environment challenges is needed, some members said MC12 is an excellent opportunity to reinforce the message that international trade in general — and particularly, trade in food — must take place in full consonance with sustainable development. Therefore, they proposed including more robust references in the Declaration to current and future environmental, climate and ethical challenges for trade in food. These would include protecting biodiversity and the ecosystems of the planet, global transformation towards sustainable food systems, animal welfare and the establishment of best practices in risk management which respect legitimate consumer expectations, while avoiding disguised protectionism.

Other members proposed inserting a reference to new threats like COVID-19 and the challenges for developing and least developed countries (LDCs). They sought clarification on how the existing transparency and notification requirements in the SPS Agreement would interact with the Declaration. Upholding transparency and the work of the international standard-setting bodies in facilitating and enhancing safe trade were also mentioned as elements to be taken into account.

In addition, under the Committee’s information sharing agenda item, the European Union proposed that the WTO should play a major role in supporting sustainability objectives in relation to trade in agricultural and fishery products. The European Union suggested that the SPS Committee, possibly jointly with other relevant committees, set up a work programme to address issues related to the transition to sustainable food systems in relation to international trade, based on the outcome of the UN Food Systems Summit. A starting point could be to identify a list of policy objectives that can be legitimately pursued, considering the need to mainstream sustainability aspects in all relevant fora. The SPS and other WTO committees could report on key findings to MC13, including recommendations, as appropriate. Some members supported the EU proposal, while others emphasized that the proposed MC12 Declaration is the best way to launch this work.

Specific trade concerns

Members raised 47 specific trade concerns (STCs), nine of them addressed for the first time in this committee. Discussions addressed a variety of topics, including restrictions and approval procedures for imports of animal and plant products, pesticide policies and maximum residue levels (MRLs).

Members also discussed actions related to COVID-19 that affect trade, approvals for new listing and reinstatement of export establishments, administrative delays in approval procedures, the renewal of authorizations for plants, fishery and livestock enterprises, and certification requirements for food derived from genetically modified organisms.

Both new and previously raised issues can be found in the password protected eAgenda system for members, which allows them to submit agenda items, statements and STCs online. Further information can also be found in the publicly available SPS Information Management System.

In addition, the WTO Secretariat presented its new Trade Concerns Database, which provides information on SPS and technical barriers to trade (TBT) trade concerns. The beta version of this Database is now available for testing and comments from members.

COVID-19 and SPS issues

The WTO Secretariat provided updates on COVID-19 and SPS issues, reporting a total of 102 submitted SPS notifications and other communications related to COVID-19. Approximately 65% of these documents were submitted in the first six months of the pandemic, between February and July 2020 and the remaining 35% have been submitted in the following 11 months, since August 2020.

The WTO “COVID 19 and world trade” webpage includes a list of measures on goods, services and intellectual property adopted by members in the context of the pandemic. The page includes trade forecasts, Secretariat reports and the list of all notifications submitted by members. Of the 392 notifications received, 26% were received under the SPS Agreement. These documents can be extracted from the SPS Information Management System. A video on how ePing users can create a filter to receive email alerts on all SPS notifications related to COVID-19 is available here.

Thematic sessions

Following up on the ongoing discussion since November 2020 of ideas and proposals for strengthening the process of monitoring of international harmonization, members discussed a new document by New Zealand (G/SPS/GEN/1915), which includes some possible topics to be covered in the thematic session on international harmonization scheduled for November 2021.

The thematic session would address progress made in the implementation of the SPS Agreement in relation to the monitoring of international harmonization of SPS measures on the basis of international standards. It would also review actions and initiatives of the international standard-setting bodies (ISSBs) to monitor the uptake and use of their standards, guidelines and recommendations. Members would be invited to provide perspectives and approaches to the application of international standards as a basis for domestic regulation and trade.

Several members expressed support for the organisation of this event, proposing that lessons from related dispute settlement cases and the Committee’s Procedure to Monitor the Process of International Harmonization (G/SPS/11/Rev.1) also be covered. They also noted that it is essential for ISSBs referenced in the SPS Agreement to participate in this event, namely the FAO/WHO Codex Alimentarius Commission (Codex), the FAO International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC) and the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE).

These organisations expressed support for such a timely event as it would provide a good forum to present the state of play of their monitoring mechanisms developed or currently under development and to discuss how ISSBs’ different texts, i.e. standards, guidelines, recommendations, or codes of practice, are considered in members’ legislation and under the SPS Agreement.

Planning ahead, members were encouraged to submit proposals for thematic sessions to be held in 2022. China proposed to postpone the thematic session on default pesticide maximum residue levels (MRLs). The European Union said it would submit a written proposal for a thematic session on plant health risk assessment and related international standards and procedures. The schedule of thematic sessions for 2022 will be finalised at the November 2021 Committee meeting.

SPS Agreement Fifth Review

As part of the follow-up to the Fifth Review of the Operation and Implementation of the SPS Agreement, a virtual Workshop on Risk Assessment, Risk Management and Risk Communication in relation to food safety, animal and plant health was held on 12-13 July. With over 1,000 registered participants, the workshop brought together a variety of speakers from the public and private sector, academia, international standard-setting bodies and other international organizations for an in-depth discussion on all aspects of SPS risk analysis.

In other follow-up work on the Fifth Review, the Committee received an update on the activities of the Working Group on Approval Procedures (G/SPS/W/328/Rev.1), which concluded its second round of meetings. Working Group members continued to discuss a proposal from co-stewards Canada and Paraguay on a common understanding of the term “approval procedures”. This proposal takes the form of an illustrative list of approval procedures, based on participants’ contributions for the practical purpose of advancing the work of the Working Group. It does not represent a legal interpretation of the rights and obligations of the SPS Agreement and is not a legal definition.

Information sharing

Members informed the SPS Committee of other relevant SPS work. Japan updated the Committee on the food safety situation following the Fukushima nuclear power station accident 10 years ago (see document GEN/1233/Rev.3). The United States introduced its new virtual SPS courses (GEN/1914) and the European Union reported on a new study on the status of new genomic techniques (GEN/1931).

The next meeting of the Committee is tentatively scheduled for November 4‑5, 2021.