Tourists visiting Seattle last December, during riots sparked by the World Trade Organization summit, might have asked the eco-protestors rampaging through the city what all the fuss was about. If they had, they would probably have been told that WTO rules prevented governments from banning imports of foodstuffs that were produced through unnecessary cruelty to animals or fish.

They would have cited a WTO case which had been lost by the US government, which had tried to ban the import of shrimps from the Indian Ocean, on the ground that the fishermen there generally killed rare marine turtles when setting their nets. The disputes panel had told the USA that it could not ban imports of a product that was also produced in America on moral grounds, the protesters would have claimed. Unfortunately they were ill-informed.

Indeed, British agriculture minister Elliot Morley – who attended an RSPCA conference last week and announced that the Government was considering making capital grants to farmers for projects boosting livestock welfare – would have done well to stay for the whole of the programme.

EU hampered ty WTO laws

The motive for the proposals, he said, was the difficulty that the Government and the EU has in imposing restrictions on food imports on animal welfare grounds, because of world trade laws administered by the World Trade Organisation. Had he remained for the conference’s afternoon session, he would have heard that these subsidies could be a waste of money.

British pork, beef, lamb and poultry producers and processors alike have long been angered by EU animal welfare legislation – such as outlawing sow stalls and expanding the size of battery hen cages – which have piled costs onto their industries, while their governments and the EU have claimed that they could not ban low cost competitors from selling their rival products on animal welfare grounds.

Welfare laws pushing up costs beyond market prices

The pork industry in particular is facing the nightmare scenario of seeing welfare laws pushing the cost of their meat above its market price, while their government says it can do nothing to protect them through import restrictions based on the same morality as the regulations that made them uncompetitive.

It is angry at the situation, but like so many issues involving international organisations, all is not what it seems on the surface. Indeed farmers and meat producers attending a London conference staged by the RSPCA this week were told that far from being a cut and dried issue at the WTO, international trade law is vague on the issue of banning imports on welfare grounds and that the principle has yet to be properly tested in a disputes hearing staged at its headquarters in Geneva.

This message came from men in the know; who spend their lives immersed in the minutiae and detail of international trade agreements. Robert Madelin, a senior official at the European Commission’s DG trade, said starkly: “The question of whether we can impose requirements on importers based on principles of their production is extremely unclear.”

EU not launching test case on grounds of CoM apathy

The reason why no such test case had been launched by the European Union was simple, he said, (the EU represents all Member States at the WTO). It was because many national governments in the Council of Ministers do not care enough about animal welfare. They care enough about Caribbean bananas and beef hormones to defend cases, but not about the financial plight of a meat industry that has to defend itself against low-price low-welfare competition from the Americas or developing countries. “If the political will was there,” said Mr Madelin, “we could do it. But there’s not sufficient political will to take the risk.”

His view was backed by Erik Wijkstrom, economics affairs officer of the WTO’s agriculture and commodities division. He said: “The issue is open for argument. It’s not clear cut.”

He spoke on the WTO’s TBT (technical barriers to trade), agreement, which lays down rules by which member governments can impose restrictions on imports. The reasons for which this can take place, explicitly include “the protection of…animal…life or health.” However, he said: “There is no consensus among members on whether non-product related production and process methods are covered by the TBT agreement.”

Shrimp-turtle ruling interpreted?

This is a far cry from the claims of some eco-protesters and EU meat producers and processors, that their interests have been locked out of the WTO process. Indeed, Mr Wijkstrom went on to claim that the infamous shrimp-turtle ruling had been misinterpreted. Protesters have claimed that the US lost at a WTO disputes hearing because welfare considerations had been overruled by free trade concerns. A close look at the test of the WTO appellate committee’s ruling shows this not to have been the case. It allowed the US claim that world trade laws allowed them to restrict trade in a bid to “conserve exhaustible natural resources;” in this case turtles. But it blocked the US’s law because it insisted on south Asian fishermen adopting the same turtle-friendly technology as that used by rich western fishing fleets: a sledge-hammer to crack a nut.

Meanwhile, the current agricultural round of negotiations at the WTO is giving national governments the chance to clear up the ambiguity in world trade law on animal welfare and conservation issues. This is possible, but unlikely given the general view amongst developing countries that import restrictions based on welfare grounds is usually an exercise in disguised protectionism. If the talks fail, then there is always the chance that a government could launch a disputes hearing on the issue, but only if it is prepared to take a big risk, possibly exposing their industries to being damaged by WTO sanctioned tariffs, if they lost the case.

Nonetheless, it seems that there is much more leeway for national European governments to protect the interests of their meat and fish industries through welfare-based import restrictions, than their production and processing industries have so far thought. If the British government took note, it could save a fortune in animal welfare grants. And for the Seattle protesters, it might make more sense for them to demonstrate outside the trade ministries in the national capitals of the European Union in future than at a summit meeting of the WTO.

By Keith Nuthall