HomePolitical leadershipUS import protections show how the UK can set high, WTO compliant food trade standards

US import protections show how the UK can set high, WTO compliant food trade standards

This post is by Megan Waters, international trade advisor to WWF-UK and former US trade negotiator.

Last summer, the public in the UK – showing far more passion on the subject than many in Whitehall would have expected – spoke nearly with one voice on the subject of food.  They made clear that they do not want food standards undermined as part of trade negotiations with the United States, or with anyone else for that matter.

Holding imported goods to standards more in line with domestic standards of production, in terms of environmental impact, now and in the future, has become a much debated area of UK trade policy discussions in recent months, with some taking the view that the UK is prohibited from doing so by the World Trade Organization (WTO).  Happily, that’s not the case.

Countries are increasingly working to figure out innovative new policies that green not only their footprint as producers, but as consumers too.  With imported food accounting for almost half of the UK’s shopping basket, food is on everyone’s mind, and with its ambitious plans to lead the world in green agriculture, this is a matter of great relevance to the UK.  One interesting approach for achieving these ends comes from the United States.

The US has a transparent approach to protecting shared resources
Many people in trade circles will be familiar with the US Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) and the years and years of dispute at the WTO about US ‘dolphin-safe’ tuna labelling regime.  This blog is not a re-exploration of that well-covered ground, but rather it focuses on the next generation of trade mechanisms now being put in place and the example that they set.

In 2016, the US government issued new regulations under the MMPA.  They come into full effect next year and are far broader in scope than those that were challenged at the WTO at the end of the last century and the start of this one.

While both marine mammals and seafood are internationally shared resources, not all countries are holding their fishing industries to comparable standards as those to which the US holds its fishing industries when it comes to the task of protecting these shared resources. To level the playing field for its fishing industry, and to help achieve its marine mammal protection policy objectives, the US has established the MMPA import provisions rule.

If a foreign company wishes to export certain types of seafood (those that carry a risk of harming marine mammals) into the US, it must demonstrate that the seafood comes from fisheries which are governed by marine mammal protections that are “comparable in effectiveness” to US standards. 

The US has been transparent about its import provisions and has established generous transition timetables. It sought input from impacted firms and nations around the world, and is offering assistance to affected parties, including technical assistance to help nations make the changes needed to be granted market access.

The trade restrictions are WTO compliant
The US has taken care in the creation of these import restrictions to ensure that they will be WTO compliant. There have been a number of WTO Appellate Body (AB) decisions that have affirmed the rights of member states to adopt import restrictive measures in furtherance of environmental policy. In the case known as Shrimp-Turtle, the AB found that the US was within its right to establish import measures aimed to protect sea turtles, but the AB took issue with the way the US initially structured its import ban. As with tuna, the US subsequently made adjustments – in this case removing discriminatory elements – to bring its trade mechanism into compliance with its WTO obligations.  Through the body of case law at the WTO, there has been increasingly clarity on how countries can ensure that trade mechanisms designed to protect the environment are WTO consistent. As a general rule, they need to be fair and as minimally disruptive to trade as possible. 

The US took the learnings from Shrimp-Turtle and Tuna-Dolphin cases to heart in designing the 2016 MMPA import measures. The US is not demanding that its standards and policies are replicated, but that there is latitude and discretion in how ‘comparable effectiveness’ is achieved.  It is not holding foreign firms to higher standards than those set for its own fishing sector, and it is committed to apply the import regime equally to all foreign nations. 

The UK could copy the US fisheries model for food trade policy
In the same way the US ensures its market is not used to encourage fishing practices that undermine its own environmental objectives, the UK might wish to ensure its market is not used to encourage farming practices that fall foul of UK environmental objectives to minimise harm done to globally shared natural resources – the climate, ecosystems, clean air, clean water, etc.  

The MMPA’s import restrictions offer one elegant approach to meeting environmental policy objectives within the WTO framework.  Undoubtedly, creative minds will think of others.  The UK, if it so chooses, could serve as a key proponent of greener trade and greener economic growth models, both through the trade policies it establishes for itself and through ideas it advances at the WTO. 

If designed well, the UK’s trade policy framework will be as innovative and worthy of reproduction elsewhere as its proposed green agricultural policies are.  Countries around the world are looking for ways to green their farming and land use, if the UK can provide a model that works both domestically and internationally, it will become a major exporter of policy solutions.

For more details on how the MMPA provides an example of effective environmental measures in trade, see this briefing.


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Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank focused on ambitious leadership and increased political support for environmental solutions in the UK. This blog provides space for commentary and analysis around environmental politics and policy issues as they affect the UK. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent those of Green Alliance.