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You cannot restrict trade in a good based on how it is produced.

What's wrong with the WTO?
You must first prove a substance dangerous before restricting its use.

The WTO assumes untested chemicals and technologies are safe until proven otherwise. This stands the Precautionary Principle—better safe than sorry—on its head, and can force nations to lower their public health, safety and environmental standards.


"The safe use of modern agricultural biotechnology has become one of the most contentious debates worldwide. There is general agreement on the need to ensure the safety of biotechnology products through effective risk assessment, management and communication. However, countries differ on how to reflect these measures in public policy. Some require that 'sound science' is used as a basis for restricting trade in products that pose a threat to the environment and human health. Others, however, argue for 'precautionary measures' that allow policy action to be taken in the absence of full scientific certainty."

"In 1992, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) adopted Principle 15 which states that 'where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.' A version of this principle was recently incorporated into the Biosafety Protocol to the Convention on Biological Diversity. There is considerable controversy on the meaning, scope, context and application of the precautionary principle in international trade and environmental management."

—Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, U.S. International Conference on Biotechnology in the Global Economy: Science and the Precautionary Principle, 22-23 September 2000.


"According to the United States, labeling of genetically modified (GM) foods is a potential dispute that may lead to accusations against the World Trade Organization. If all GM foods had to be labeled, it would force the U.S. to separate out GM soya and maize which are now mixed in with non-GM grains. The U.S. has argued that labeling GM foods is a barrier to trade because if GM foods are labeled consumers may choose not to buy them. Countries that ban GM products because of safety concerns could also be taken before the WTO Dispute Settlement Body for not conforming with the Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) Agreement, which requires convincing scientific proof of the exact nature of the health risk before a country has the right to ban an import."



"… [T]he WTO seeks to remove decisions regarding health, food and safety from national governments and delegate them to international standard-setting bodies such as the Codex Alimentarius, an elite club of scientists located in Geneva, largely controlled by big food and agribusiness corporations."

"The WTO SPS Agreement has been used to defeat the use of the 'precautionary principle.' A WTO tribunal held that this principle could not be a justifiable basis upon which to establish regulatory controls. (The precautionary principle allows regulatory action when there is risk of harm, even If there remains scientific uncertainty about the extent and nature of the potential impacts of a product or practice.)"

—Maude Barlow, national chairperson, Council of Canadians


"Under the SPS Agreement, WTO may force a nation to choose between weakening its health standards for humans, animals, or plants, or paying an international penalty. The penalty can take the form of either compensating the foreign government whose exports to the nation are limited by the stricter standard or permitting that country to impose additional trade restrictions on exports from the nation with the more protective health standard."

—Bruce Silverglade, Director of Legal Affairs, Center for Science in the Public Interest, U.S.


The Precautionary Principle is an established pillar of public policy and common sense. In essence, it says that when doubts exist as to the safety of substances or processes, governments may take precautions to protect the public until they are proven safe. In other words, err on the side of caution; when in doubt, play it safe. Articulated in the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, this principle is an important basis of public health and environmental legislation around the world.

A classic example of why the Precautionary Principle is necessary is thalidomide. This drug tested safe on laboratory animals. The birth defects it caused showed up only in the children of women who took it.

The WTO doesn't allow countries to make value judgments or take social priorities into account in food-safety or public-health policy, even in a non-discriminatory way (between national and foreign producers and among different foreign producers ). For example, the United States' zero-tolerance of listeria bacteria violates WTO rules.

Instead, trade rules force countries to use a method of risk assessment that is difficult and expensive, as risk is often hard to quantify scientifically. For example, one reason for efforts to regulate genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is the lack of scientific data available on them. Article 5.2 of the WTO Agreement on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (SPS), however, requires that a government wishing to regulate a GMO must justify the regulation with a risk assessment based on scientific evidence that the organism is a threat.

The SPS Agreement also adopts by reference international standards biased in favor of business, such as some of those of the Codex Alimentarius and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). Rather than set floors on safety provisions, allowing nations and localities to set higher levels of safety and protection, the WTO does the reverse: it sets ceilings and can be used to strike down any protections that exceed them.

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Legal Basis

Agreement on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (SPS)

See SPS page.

SPS is one of the treaties enforced by the World Trade Organization.

This treaty "sets constraints on government policies relating to food safety and animal and plant health, from pesticides and biological contaminants to food inspection, product labeling and genetically engineered foods."

Article 5
Assessment of Risk and Determination of the Appropriate Level of Sanitary or Phytosanitary Protection
"2. In the assessment of risks, Members shall take into account available scientific evidence; relevant processes and production methods; relevant inspection, sampling and testing methods; prevalence of specific diseases or pests; existence of pest- or disease-free areas; relevant ecological and environmental conditions; and quarantine or other treatment."

SPS also effectively establishes international standards as ceilings, including those set by the Codex Alimentarius Commission and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), both industry-dominated bodies.

Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT)

See TBT page.

TBT is one of the treaties enforced by the World Trade Organization.

This treaty has also been interpreted to drag down democratically chosen consumer-safety standards. Among other restrictions, it limits the right of countries to adopt standards more stringent than those set by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).

Rio Declaration on Environment and Development

The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 3 to 14 June 1992

Principle 15
"In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation."

Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety

Convention on Biological Diversity, United Nations Environment Programme

Work on this protocol began in Cartagena, Colombia, in February 1999 and the final agreement was adopted in Montreal, Canada, in January 2000.

Biotechnology Agreement (proposed)

Prior to the Seattle Ministerial in 1999, the U.S. government reportedly proposed a new WTO agreement that would prevent other countries from prohibiting imports of genetically engineered (GE) foods. This proposal would shift the burden onto governments to prove that a GE food was not safe before restricting imports of it, rather than requiring the producer to prove that the product is safe.

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Cases & Controversies

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Official WTO Web site

  • Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (SPS)
    See SPS page
  • Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT)
    See TBT page

By Peter Costantini ~ Seattle ~ November 2001

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