The world needs clearer rules to judge when trade curbs on environmental or health grounds are justified or are simply protectionist, a U.N. study said on Thursday.
OSLO The world needs clearer rules to judge when trade curbs on environmental or health grounds are justified or are simply protectionist, a U.N. study said on Thursday.
Trans-Atlantic trade tensions could worsen without a common understanding of a "precautionary principle" in environmental law that is often invoked to allow trade barriers such as the European Union ban on U.S. genetically modified food, it said.
"The seriousness of these disputes and the importance of the technology threaten great damage to international cooperation and law," said A.H. Zakri, director of the U.N. University's Japan-based Institute for Advanced Studies.
Countries sometimes use a "precautionary principle" to justify measures to prevent serious or irreversible harm even if the feared damage is not certain to happen. But the principle has no accepted definition worldwide.
Most industrial nations, for instance, are capping emissions of industrial greenhouse gases under the U.N.'s Kyoto Protocol, fearing that inaction could lead to global warming that could cause catastrophic changes such as rising sea levels.
"What is lacking is a uniform description of the precautionary principle," the report said, adding that trade restrictions based on safety worries might sometimes be protectionism in disguise.
It urged governments to work out a common threshold of acceptable risk or at least "a common practice of risk assessment" to help tackle disputes.
The World Trade Organization ruled this year that the EU and six members states broke trade rules by barring entry to genetically modified foods, due to worries about their safety, after a case brought by the United States, Canada and Argentina.
The 25 nation EU bans GMO rice, for instance, amid public fears about "Frankenfoods". The biotech industry says the products pose no threat. Since 2004, the EU has sanctioned imports of about 10 GMO products, including rapeseed and maize.
Other food disputes have included U.S. bans on unpasteurized European cheeses, EU barriers to U.S. hormone-fed beef and a Zambian refusal to accept U.S. GMO corn because of worries it could jeopardise Zambia's GMO-free status in exports to the EU.
"The collapse of the Doha Round (of global trade talks) means that more of these type of clashes are likely to end up in the WTO," the report said.
In environmental law, the precautionary principle is built into several treaties apart from the Kyoto Protocol.
Precaution underpins a U.N. ban on a "dirty dozen" chemicals including pesticides and industrial toxins and the U.N.'s Montreal Protocol outlawing refrigerants that destroy the protective ozone layer.
Past WTO rulings have established that a lack of "absolute certainty" about the safety of GMO foods, for instance, cannot be used to justify trade restrictions.
"The EU is much more enthusiastic about the precautionary principle" than the United States, Risa Schwartz, a co-author of the U.N. study who works for the Ontario government in Canada, told Reuters.