A pressing issue in international relations today is the need to implement standardized measures of food production and consumption, which can ensure harmonization and make food trade less costly and more inclusive. Having been relatively less studied in the academic landscape, discussed in national bureaucracies, or present in the media, the topic of food standards gained renewed importance with the recent document entitled “Trade and Food Standards”, published by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Trade Organization (WTO). Together, the two bodies under the United Nations constellation brought attention to different aspects of international food standards, stressing that harmonization can ensure safe, nutritious, and sufficient food for a growing world population, especially in developing countries (FAO & WTO, 2017). The argument is straightforward: social protection - and food security in particular - can benefit with higher food standards.
Food standards are not new. Since 1955, a joint expert committee on nutrition involving the FAO and the World Health Organization (WHO) has stressed that multiple domestic food regulations can be contradictory, which can harm the distribution of “nutritionally valuable food” to all populations. Years later, the work of the two agencies received backing from the Codex Alimentarius Commission or simply the “food code”, which was set to be the standard for consumers, producers and processors of food as well as for national food control agencies and the players operating international food trade chains. By advocating a set of parameters for food regulations, the code contributes to ensure the protection of public health and good practices in food trade.
The topic is of utmost importance in current times, as global leaders slowly implement protectionist measures and implement trade barriers. National food regulations are increasingly being made more complex in response to the demands of specific domestic groups and to exclude external actors. Disputes at the WTO on its agreements on technical barriers to trade (TBT) and on the application of sanitary and phytosanitary measures (SPS) are routine, but can also respond to other imperatives, going beyond the original controversy and further affecting access to appropriate and nutritious food. Furthermore, by complicating the already intricate collection of rules and procedures related to food trade, states can negatively impact the role of trade in promoting sustainable development. Fair trade can help in the global effort to achieve the sustainable development goals, namely SDGs 2, 3, 8 and 17 (FAO & WTO, 2017).
One of the direct benefits of enhancing food criterions and of following a scientific framework is that domestic producers would not need to comply with a plethora of different rules and standards when engaging in food value chains. In light of this, national governments could better allocate their resources in the development of food safety requirements, assuring more sustainable programs that include purchases from smallholders and pay respect to the particularities of local communities. Furthermore, such measures can lower the costs of exporting food-related products. As agriculture and livestock form the basis of the economies of many developing countries, the existence of fewer technical and sanitary trade barriers could ease market access and diminish existing imbalances in interstate relations.
One possible critique is that the rules governing fairer and facilitated food standards work to the advantage of more powerful states. Justifiably, since rich states have more technical and scientific expertise in the global debate on food standards and are able to exert considerable influence within the mentioned organizations, as well as at the Codex Alimentarius Commission. Acknowledging the problem, the FAO together with the WTO, the WHO, the World Bank, and the World Organization for Animal Health, promote training and capacity building activities in order to allow developing countries to effectively and actively use the food standards system. The effort is crucial, since any standardized convention needs to take into consideration the realities of different countries, regions and local communities. Otherwise, there is the risk that such a code could be used to simply perpetuate asymmetrical relations without acknowledging the most vulnerable.
Sometimes perceived to be detached from social protection practices or judged as an unavoidably “negative” force, trade has distributives costs and benefits that cannot be minimized. It affects a range of issues that go from the micro management of diets in a specific community or population to the overall flow of international agricultural trade. As stated in the document “Trade and Food Standards”, transparent trade is inextricably connected to the assurance of food security, nutrition and food safety. Considering the fast-paced transformations in the manifold intersections of food production and trade, the institutional framework provided by the FAO and the WTO can contribute to ensure that food standards are responsible and inclusive enough to take into account the lived realities of people in developed and developing countries. The debate, however, still needs to continue, increasing the number of stakeholders and enforcing accountability.
FAO & WTO. 2017. Trade and Food Standards. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations & the World Trade Organization.
Cover Image: WTO, available here.
This blog post is published as part of the Ambassador Series, which presents insights into social protection around the world from the viewpoint of our Ambassadors, a group of international online United Nations Volunteers who support the online knowledge exchange activities, networking and promotion of socialprotection.org.
PhD candidate in Comparative Politics, Institute of Social Sciences-University of Lisbon PRIMO early stage researcher / Marie Curie Fellow
This research has received funding from the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme for research, technological development and demonstration under grant agreement no. 607133
 More specifically: hunger, food security, nutrition and sustainable agriculture (SDG 2); healthy lives and wellbeing (SDG 3); economic growth, employment and work (SDG 8); and strengthening global partnerships for sustainable development (SDG 17). See: http://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/sustainable-development-goals/, access in July 2017.
 Moreover, the WTO and the FAO created the Standards and Trade Development Facility (STDF), a partnership to disseminate best practices and support developing countries. See: http://www.standardsfacility.org/, access in July 2017.
 As said FAO’s director-general José Graziano da Silva, “food safety and food standards are crucial to unlock the potential of an important tool to fight hunger, which is trade”. See: http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/996295/icode/, access in July 2017.