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Trading Away our Future?

By Shane Rattenbury - posted Wednesday, 15 December 1999

The meeting of the World Trade Organisation in Seattle was as much about the future of our environment as it was about the future of world trading systems.

Designed as a means of regulating the international trading system, the WTO rules also heavily impact on areas such as the environment, health, labour standards and intellectual property. It is this fact which has made the WTO the target of many environment and social activists.

In response to the increasing public disquiet, this year’s final communiqué of the annual Group of Eight (G8) summit pledged to "seek a more effective way within the WTO for addressing the trade and environment relationship and promoting sustainable development and social and economic welfare worldwide".


Yet some governments, including Australia's, want to ignore this important element of the Seattle meeting, insisting on a narrow agenda focussed on trade liberalisation for agriculture, manufacturing and services.

The Australian Government has gone so far as to refuse to allow a non-government environment representative onto the official Australian delegation. This compares starkly with the eight industry representatives who have been invited. Other countries, such as Canada, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, have included environment representatives on their delegations.

In Seattle, a key question will be whether governments are willing to bring the WTO under control and to take decisive steps to resolve the serious conflicts between trade and environment and sustainable development.

These conflicts are best illustrated by recent examples of the WTO in action. In these cases, trade rules have been used to challenge efforts of governments and other organisations to address environmental, health and safety problems. For example, in the "Shrimp/Turtle" case, the WTO Appellate Body ruled that a US ban on imports of shrimp caught in nets that did not protect endangered sea turtles violated WTO rules.

Similarly, since 1981 the European Community has maintained measures to keep beef tainted with bovine growth hormones off the European market. In 1989, it forbade the sale and the import of meat products from animals administered any of the natural or synthetic hormones.

After a challenge from the US and Canada, the WTO’s Appellate Body ruled that the import ban was not adequately based on scientific evidence. The Europeans remained firm, refusing to lift the import ban pending the completion of a new round of scientific studies. They now face a penalty fee of US$124 million per year, and the WTO has allowed the US and Canada to impose 100 percent tariffs on selected European goods.


The Appellate Body decision against the Europeans raises a number of problematic issues. Does the precautionary principle, which states that lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing action where there is a threat of serious or irreversible damage, find adequate expression in the WTO system? Who should bear the burden of proving the safety or risks of a product - the product’s producer or a government seeking to regulate the product? And finally, although the Europeans are able to sustain the consequences of maintaining their regulations, what possibility do small countries have to resist WTO intervention? This last point is one of particular interest for Australia, which has historically maintained stringent quarantine regimes.

The two examples above, while perhaps technically legally correct, show the shortcomings of the WTO’s narrow pursuit of trade liberalisation, which overshadows other equally legitimate policy objectives.

Market based incentives that single out and reward sustainable production methods are essential to achieving a shift to sustainable development. Yet in our global economy, these measures remain vulnerable to unpredictable challenges at the WTO.

In our report Safe Trade in the 21st Century, Greenpeace has made recommendations for the Seattle meeting that are critical to make the WTO compatible with environmental policy. Primary amongst these is the need for the WTO to implement the precautionary principle in its decision–making, including reversing the burden of proof on dispute settlement proceedings. Trade rules must also actively promote and reward production and consumption patterns that are sustainable and environmentally friendly.

International trade must not be considered a goal in itself. Free trade should not downgrade and undermine the necessary ecological and social regulations for sustainable development. The Australian Government needs to recognise that it cannot ignore this vital part of the WTO agenda. A good start would be including a non-government environment representative on its delegation to Seattle.

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About the Author

Shane Rattenbury is a Political Liaison Officer for Greenpeace Australia Pacific.

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Greenpeace Australia
Official WTO Seattle Site
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