The Role of Trade Policy in Promoting Sustainable Agriculture



Fredrik Erixon and Philipp Lamprecht | European Centre for International Political Economy

There is now a long history of countries improving sustainability standards in most parts of the economy while at the same time pursuing the ambitions of rules-based international trade and economic integration with other countries. It is not surprising that countries at the vanguard of sustainability also tend to be the countries that are most open to trade.

This Report looks closer at the interplay between the formulation of domestic standards and provisions in Free Trade Agreements that either acknowledge domestic standards or establish standards in a direct way. This interplay is crucial for two reasons: first to establish market access arrangements that help to promote sustainability standards, second to provide the policy basis to make standards and possible market access restrictions conducive to basic trade rules.

It lays a focus particularly on the growing importance of sustainability standards in international trade agreements, or Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) – in particular for the food sector. Such standards are relevant for all new high-ambition Free Trade Agreements – from the EU-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership between eleven trans-pacific nations. The Report considers especially nine modern FTAs.

The purpose of the Report is to investigate how governments with high sustainability ambitions approach the issue of trade and sustainability – in particular how they work with, on the one hand, specific provisions in FTAs and, on the other hand, the development of domestic standards and their linkage to trade.

The Report also looks directly at how these standards are designed, and what lessons that can be learned for governments that want to raise sustainability ambitions. It puts the results of the analysis in the context of Norwegian ambitions to improve its sustainability standards for food placed on the Norwegian market.

The analysis of how trade and sustainability have been made compatible starts with the rules of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). These rules are important in their own right, but they also carry political significance. WTO-rules form the basis of the bilateral free trade agreements that countries sign with each other – and that now make up the main plank of international trade negotiations.

In the language of the WTO, basic trade rules serve to protect the principles of national treatment and non-discrimination. Sustainability policies that are grounded on solid evidence and that follow international scientific norms will be compatible with WTO rules. Sustainability policies that confer advantages to domestic producers or that are arbitrary will get a harsh treatment.

Consequently, the bilateral free trade deals that the European Union or the European Free Trade Area (EFTA) have concluded with other parts of the world are not just compatible with WTO rules, they rely on these rules as the foundation stone. Moreover, these rules inform governments how they should organise their sustainability policy if they also want the opportunity to take part in modern trade agreements.

If countries aren’t willing to play by these rules, they should also accept that they won’t be able to enjoy the benefits of trade agreements. What member countries of the WTO have agreed in past multilateral trade accords are not a blockage of sustainability policy, but they bar countries from pursuing such policies in a way that would lead to unequal application of trade rules – between home and foreign producers, or between different foreign producers.

In addition, it is of interest – also to the Norwegian policy discussion – to consider how EU policies are likely to change in the forceable future. The analysis provides a discussion of issues that are likely to remain very high on the agenda of the next European Commission.

These include possible improvements in the TSD Chapters of trade agreements in particular with regard to enforcement mechanisms, the engagement of civil society, and climate action. Further policy highlights include a possible introduction of a carbon border tax, as well as the discussions related to due diligence of supply chains, and multilateralism.

In terms of conclusions, the Report identifies four main observations that should inform future policy development in Norway:

First, there is clearly a case to be made for aligning Norwegian trade policy to EU trade policy when it comes to provisions on trade and sustainability in Free Trade Agreements.

Second, there is a substantial body of scientific evidence, risk assessments and international experience of standards in areas that are related to sanitary and phyto-sanitary standards and to environmental standards which any government that want to raise sustainability standards can draw on.

Third, many countries struggle to formulate their domestic sustainability standards in a structured way. Arguably, this is a critical point for governments that are considering to introduce higher standards with consequence for market access for foreign producers.

To avoid confusion or accusation of standards being a disguised trade restrictions, countries like Norway would have to structure and systematise its standards if the ambitions were to be raised and formed part of market access policy. A first step for a policy that seeks to condition import on the compliance with a stand is to make the standard clear and explicit.

Fourth, there are direct and indirect relations between domestic standards and provisions in FTAs. FTAs often deal with policies that cannot be directly formulated in a domestic standard, like some aspects of labour laws. They also deal with other forms of standards that need policy convergence in order to guarantee smooth trade between the contracting parties.

Generally, it cannot be said that the EU or other entities use FTAs to “regulate” or to establish the standard. That rather happens bottom-up – through domestic regulations that later get reflected in trade agreements.



To view the full report, click here.