By Elizabeth Westendorf, Assistant Director of Policy
It’s no secret that the U.S. wheat industry and its customers rely heavily on international trade rules to keep markets open and wheat moving. The World Trade Organization (WTO) is the prime example of this, particularly in its limits on tariffs and subsidies that have done so much to push towards a level playing field in global trade. But along with the WTO are other institutions that play a critical role in trade.
As traditional barriers to trade have decreased due to the WTO and other trade agreements, many countries have adapted and found new ways to protect industries, limit imports, or retaliate on trade issues (and clearly there are still many issues with traditional barriers!). Technical barriers – in particular sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) barriers that purportedly address health, safety, and environmental problems – are a big challenge in trade today and likely to be a growing concern in the future.
The WTO SPS Agreement identifies two additional international treaties that are relevant to wheat trade: the Codex Alimentarius and the International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC). The Codex Alimentarius is a collection of standards, guidelines and practices that aim to protect consumer health while also ensuring fair practices in international trade, and the IPPC is the international standard setting body for plant health.
The most visible standards in wheat are probably the maximum levels for pesticide residues (MRLs), mycotoxins, and heavy metals set by Codex, but there are other influential standards for things like phytosanitary certificates and pest risk assessments adopted by the IPPC.
The SPS Agreement requires that any measures that a country adopts that are more trade-limiting than the standards developed by Codex and IPPC be scientifically justified, taking into account relevant factors like exposure and risk. Countries have every right to limit imports of unsafe products, whether they’re unsafe to their consumers or the environment, as long as they have gone through the process of providing sound justification. The WTO provides a clearing house of announcement for regulatory changes proposed by member countries, giving all others an opportunity to comment and object if needed. USW staff routinely monitor these announcements for any potential new restrictions on wheat trade.
Divergence from an international SPS measure is not necessarily a violation of trade commitments, but it can be a sign that something is wrong and needs to be fixed. The U.S. government has personnel dedicated to fixing these sorts of technical barriers and ensuring that standard setting bodies rely on the best science available and avoid acting as unnecessary impediments to trade.
The highly technical nature of SPS measures means that these measures are often difficult to implement properly and address if something is wrong. Following these standards or an alternative science- and risk-based process is extremely important for trade in wheat and wheat products to avoid market disruptions. The evolving nature of trade also means that these institutions need to pursue robust agendas while maintaining their scientific integrity so that they do not become pawns of agendas, but remain independent arbiters of good trade practices in SPS measures.