NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Precautionary Principle: Protectionism in Environmental Clothing?

August 8, 2001

The European Commission wants an ambitious new round of negotiations on world trade rules. But critics say some of the European proposals amount to protectionism in disguise.

The EU is asking that an environmental "precautionary principle" be written into World Trade Organization (WTO) rules. Agricultural exporters see the effort as a threat to the WTO's basic principle that health measures must be science-based and proportionate to the real risk to consumers.

  • Among their agenda items, Europeans want the WTO to address control of aflatoxins -- toxic compounds that contaminate, in infinitesimal quantities, such foods as nuts, cereals and dried fruits.
  • A recent World Bank report found that EU effort to block imports of such foods, if successful, would have only a marginal benefit on human health -- but a massive impact on poor countries, which would be incapable of meeting the EU's uniquely stringent safety requirements.
  • The report said that the new aflatoxin standards "would reduce health risks by only about 1.4 deaths per billion a year but would cut African exports 64 percent, or $670 million, compared with their level under international standards."

The aflatoxin issue is only one of many EU proposals critics see as protectionist-inspired, rather than motivated by any serious environmental concern. Other issues the EU wants the WTO to address are food safety, animal welfare and "ecological" labeling.

Source: Geoff Winestock, "Is EU's Environmental Push Protectionism?" Wall Street Journal, August 8, 2001.

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