WTO Members Underline Importance of Facilitating Safe Agri-Food Trade in Times of Crisis
WTO members stressed the importance of providing a coordinated response to global crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuring that trade in agricultural and food products is not unduly restricted at a meeting of the Committee on Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) Measures on 24 June. The meeting began with a session dedicated to COVID-19 information-sharing. Members commended the extensive work of the WTO Secretariat in compiling SPS measures implemented since the start of the pandemic. Almost half of these measures facilitate trade, with increased use of electronic certification.
Noting that agricultural and food production systems have been resilient despite the considerable challenges over the past few months, members agreed that now, more than ever, respecting the key principles of the SPS Agreement is needed. These principles include transparency and ensuring that trade measures have a sufficient scientific basis. Even COVID-19 emergency measures must comply with the requirements of the SPS Agreement, members said.
The importance of respecting international standards and participating in the work of the international standard-setting bodies (ISSBs) — Codex Alimentarius, the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) and the International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC) — was also highlighted. Moreover, some members stressed that the crisis has brought about an increased uptake in electronic certification tools and other trade-facilitating measures.
The WTO Secretariat updated members on COVID-19 related SPS documents submitted in recent months. From the start of the pandemic, the WTO Secretariat put in place a dedicated web page to keep track of all trade measures relating to goods, services and intellectual property adopted in the context of the pandemic. The site also contains trade forecasts and COVID-19 reports prepared by the Secretariat as well as a list of notifications submitted by WTO members.
Out of the 175 notifications related to COVID-19, the majority (40%) were submitted under the WTO's Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT) while 25% were notified under the SPS Agreement. These can be retrieved from the SPS Information Management System (SPS IMS) using the COVID-19 SPS keywords filter. A filter in the ePing system can also be set to receive email alerts on COVID-19 related SPS notifications.
Initially, the notified measures were mainly trade restrictions and increased certification requirements. They were notified as emergency measures and temporarily restricted imports and/or the transit of terrestrial or aquatic animals from affected areas in order to limit the spread of the virus. Some of the measures were subsequently lifted. A trade-restrictive measure notified in May temporarily restricted wild animals considered as possible intermediate hosts for COVID-19 transmission.
Other notifications covered the extension of the comment period for a proposed rule and the postponement of the date of adoption of technical regulations and standards previously notified. Information contained in general communications referred, among other things, to the temporary relaxation of labelling requirements for food products and measures to be implemented in organic certification processes. These communications also covered guidelines on the approval of SPS import clearance for meat commodities and a request for the suspension of the process and entry into force of reductions of maximum residue levels (MRLs) for plant protection products.
Since April, however, most notifications and communications from members have related to measures taken to facilitate trade, now representing almost half of the total.
The Secretariat also reported that some members notified permanent moves to phytosanitary certification within the ePhyto Solution being implemented by IPPC and supported by the Standards and Trade Development Facility (STDF).
The STDF Secretariat noted that COVID-19 has seriously disrupted trade and caused a substantial shock to the agri-food sector. The pandemic provides a clear reminder of the ease and speed at which pests and diseases can spread worldwide as well as the inter-connectedness of global supply chains, underscoring the importance of building food safety and animal and plant health capacity. The STDF representative highlighted the value of working together to ensure that the public and private sector, especially in developing countries, is better equipped and, in the longer term, more able to respond to such crises. There are a lot of challenges but also opportunities to do things better and differently in the future, the STDF representative said.
Members were also briefed by the so-called “three sisters” (Codex Alimentarius, OIE and IPPC) on their COVID-19 related work. The three organisations agreed on the importance of enhanced global networks in effectively tackling emergency situations and warned against the temptation of relying solely on national measures to avoid further trade disruptions.
While stressing the need to take a multi-sectoral and coherent approach to address the pandemic, the agencies said that keeping the virus out of the food chain and production centres should be paramount and emphasised that no COVID-19 related measures should be adopted without sufficient scientific basis.
The World Health Organization was invited to address the Committee. It spoke about the role of the International Health Regulations (IHRs) in facilitating information exchange on public health responses, ensuring that the responses are commensurate to the risk and avoiding unnecessary interference with international trade and transportation. The WHO also referred to its COVID-19 related guidance documents for food businesses and food safety control systems.