A group of members presented the Committee with the International Statement on Agricultural Applications of Precision Biotechnology (G/SPS/GEN/1658/Rev.3), with the aim of launching a forward-looking debate on how to support policies that enable agricultural innovation, including genome editing.

Proponents underlined that global environmental challenges, pest and disease pressures, food insecurity and changes in consumer preferences, among other factors, have made the use and fostering of tools such as precision biotechnology vital for increasing the production of safe food. In this light, in April 2018, the countries participating in the "Seminar on Genome Editing for Regulators", organized by the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture, shared a draft statement on the applications of precision biotechnology. The primary objective of this initiative is to coordinate efforts to ensure that the regulatory approaches for these techniques are scientifically based and internationally harmonized.

The final text of the international statement is non-binding on supporting countries but provides guidelines for preventing regulatory asymmetries and, in turn, potential trade disruption.

Proponents indicated that the debate on precision biotechnology could build on the discussion of recurrent concerns at the Committee, including the rise in anti-microbial resistance (AMR), the spread of animal diseases, the increase in pest pressures as well as the nexus between animal health and welfare. The new biotechnology tools carry the potential to reduce significantly the costs and timelines to bring new products to market – thereby enabling public researchers and small technology companies to support local needs and challenges, particularly in developing countries.

Members supporting this initiative to date are Argentina, which raised the issue in the Committee, as well as Australia, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Honduras, Jordan, Paraguay, the United States, Uruguay and Viet Nam. Other members were invited to join.

Fifth Review

The SPS Committee chair, Ms Noncedo Vutula of South Africa, updated members on the work done under the Fifth Review of the Operation and Implementation of the SPS Agreement over the past few months. New and revised proposals were submitted and discussed. These included the promotion of science-based procedures for the implementation of the SPS Agreement, including procedures for situations where scientific evidence was insufficient, the role of the three standard setting bodies (Codex, IPPC and OIE) in addressing specific trade concerns (STCs) in the Committee, and third-party assurance schemes and the development of guidelines for the implementation of Article 13 of the SPS Agreement.

In addition, a joint proposal was introduced by the United States and Kenya, supported by Argentina, Brazil, Chinese Taipei, Paraguay and Uruguay, to use fall armyworm (an insect native to tropical and subtropical regions of the Americas, which in its larva stage causes significant damage to crops, if not well managed) as a case study to discuss the application of the principles of the SPS Agreement to enable greater access to tools and technologies. The chair suggested holding a thematic session in March 2019 to further discuss the issues raised in the proposal.

Members also reviewed previously submitted proposals which had been presented in the July 2018 Committee meeting as well as the comments received on these proposals.

Also in the context of the Fifth Review, the Committee held on 30 October the first part of a thematic session on equivalence, i.e. governments accepting other countries’ measures even if they are different from their own so long as an equivalent level of protection is provided. Discussions covered the challenges of having a common definition of equivalence, the lack of consistency in wording across organizations, the situations in which a systems approach should be used and the link between recognition of disease-free areas and equivalence determinations. The second session in March 2019 will focus on members' experiences.

New specific trade concerns

Blue tongue - Russia's import restrictions

The European Union raised concerns about the Russian Federation's import restrictions on all susceptible live ruminants and their genetic materials following an outbreak of blue tongue (a non-contagious, viral disease spread by biting insects which affects species of ruminants, particularly sheep)  in limited areas of the European Union. The EU said that these measures are not in line with Chapter 8.3 of the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) Terrestrial Code, which recommends that the export of susceptible live animals and their genetic material from areas affected by the disease should be allowed under certain conditions, such as vaccination, laboratory testing or protection of animals in vector-protected establishments. These conditions are reflected in the relevant veterinary export certificates agreed by both parties but the Russian Federation is not respecting this agreement, the EU said.

The Russian delegate responded that the Ministry of Agriculture is currently reviewing the domestic legislation on this matter and called for constructive work among members to enhance activities aimed at preventing the spread of blue tongue in Europe. 

EU policy on pesticides

Colombia and India raised concerns regarding the EU policy on maximum residue levels (MRLs) of certain pesticides (buprofezin, diflubenzuron, ethoxysulfurom, ioxynil, molinate, picoxystrobin and tepraloxydim). They underlined that the EU has based its measures on a hazard approach and a precautionary stance without considering the scientific evidence presented by the relevant organizations, which are not conclusive with regards to the genotoxic quality of these substances. Another 14 members - Argentina, Costa Rica, Brazil, Canada, Chile, United States, Panama, Paraguay, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Peru, Guatemala and Turkey – supported this concern and complained that insufficient time has been provided to adjust to the new EU regulation.

The European Union replied that the proposed lowering of MRLs is necessary to protect consumers as available information indicates that, under certain circumstances, these pesticides can be of carcinogenic nature, for which a genotoxic mechanism cannot be excluded and therefore no threshold for acceptable exposures can be assumed. The EU reported that the draft legal acts lowering the MRLs generally apply six months after the date of entry into force, allowing member states, third countries and food business operators to put in place adequate arrangements to meet the new requirements.

ECJ decision on mutagenesis

The United States raised concerns regarding the EU Court of Justice (ECJ) Opinion 528/16 on organisms obtained by mutagenesis (the process of inducing mutations). These organisms would be subject to the burdensome risk assessment and review requirements, labelling and monitoring obligations as well as traceability laws that the EU applied to genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The US said that implementation of this ruling will place unjustified barriers to trade on products of genome editing as well as stifle the agricultural research and innovation necessary to prevent hunger and malnutrition in the coming decades while ensuring environmental sustainability of agricultural activities. Argentina and Paraguay joined in expressing this concern.

In its response, the European Union noted that the ECJ ruling had clarified that the GMO regulation applied to organisms obtained through new mutagenesis techniques. The EU further indicated its commitment to guaranteeing its proper implementation while remaining open to discussion on this issue on a bilateral basis.

Viet Nam's Livestock Law

The United States raised concerns about the new Livestock Production Law which the Vietnamese National Assembly may debate and vote on as early as November 2018. In particular, the US highlighted a specific provision of the law related to an import ban on livestock products obtained by using chemicals prohibited for domestic production in Viet Nam. According to the US, this law would not allow the use of Codex MRLs for imported goods. Canada and Paraguay shared the same concerns.

Viet Nam stressed that it is still in the process of reviewing the draft regulation, notified to the WTO on 30 October 2018, as comments and feedback from other members are still being considered before the text undergoes the final ratification process.

Thailand's import fees

The United States took issue with Thailand's import fees related to approval procedures for uncooked meat, poultry and meat offal. The US noted that these fees, which have the same objective of preventing the spread of animal diseases as the corresponding domestic slaughtering fees for the same products, are significantly higher than the domestic fees and appear disproportionate to the cost of service rendered. The US also believed that these higher fees act as a disguised restriction on US exports.

In its reply, Thailand noted that these fees account for the domestic operational costs related to testing, which are necessary to guarantee the protection of domestic consumers. According to Thailand, the cumulative costs assumed by national producers at various stages in the process are higher than the total fees charged.

Other trade concerns

STCs previously brought up in the SPS Committee included five EU SPS-related policies: the categorization of compounds as endocrine disruptors, the maximum level of cadmium in foodstuffs, the veterinary medicinal products legislation review, the EU Commission decision 202/994/EC on animal products, and the new definition of the fungicide folpet.

The SPS Committee also heard previously raised concerns regarding Guatemala's restrictions on egg products, China's proposed amendments to the implementation of regulations on safety assessment of agricultural GMOs, the Russian Federation's import restrictions on processed fishery products from Estonia and on certain animal products from Germany, Brazil's measures on shrimp, and import restrictions by China and South Africa due to highly pathogenic avian influenza.

Other previous raised concerns heard by the Committee included general import restrictions due to Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), New Zealand's import health standard for vehicles, machinery and equipment, India's fumigation requirements for grain and other products, Thailand's import restriction on papaya seeds, US import restrictions on apples and pears and Indonesia's alleged lack of transparency and undue delays in approval procedures for animal products.

Next meeting

The next meeting of the Committee is tentatively scheduled for the week of 18 March 2019.

Want to know more?

The SPS Information Management System (SPS IMS) includes all SPS-related measures notified by WTO members and the trade-related concerns discussed in SPS Committee meetings.




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