International trade in food is as old as nations. Ever since nations existed, they have exchanged food and other agricultural products such as wood and fibres. This trade in agricultural products provides clear economic benefits. Thus, food and other products become cheaper, and the choice of products available expands considerably. Agriculture remains a cornerstone of many economies, especially in developing countries. Agricultural production and processing are activities which offer many low-income countries the possibility to trade their way out of poverty.
One fundamental requirement is that imported (as well as domestic) agricultural products are safe, and do not pose risks to human, animal and plant health. To ensure food safety, and to avoid the introduction of diseases and pests through trade, countries impose regulations to protect human and animal health (sanitary measures) and plant health (phytosanitary measures).
GATT 1947 recognized the need to introduce trade restrictions to protect health. Exceptions from GATT rules were allowed for measures necessary to protect human, animal or plant life or health (Article XXb). GATT members had the right to take these measures as long as they were not applied in a manner which would be a means of arbitrary or unjustifiable discrimination between countries, or a disguised restriction on international trade.
Through successive rounds of negotiations, tariffs were reduced, and temptation to use non-tariff barriers to protect domestic industries increased. Included in these non-tariff barriers were sanitary and phytosanitary measures. There was thus a growing need to give precision to the exceptions of Article XX of the GATT.
Among many other concerns, sanitary and phytosanitary measures were one of the areas addressed by the Uruguay Round of trade negotiations, which resulted in the creation of the WTO in 1995. The Marrakesh Agreement Establishing the World Trade Organization contains a number of trade agreements in its annexes, including the Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (SPS Agreement). The Agreement on Agriculture deals mainly with issues of market access, domestic support, and export subsidies for agricultural products. The Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT Agreement) [see chapter 9] covers technical regulations not covered by the SPS Agreement.
In addition, the WTO Agreement contains a dispute settlement mechanism [see chapter 5], and a mechanism through which member’s trade policies are regularly reviewed.
The implementation of the WTO Agreements is overseen by committees. All Members of the WTO are automatically Members of these committees, and make almost all decisions by consensus. The implementation of the SPS Agreement is overseen by the SPS Committee [see chapter 4].