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Home arrow Research Projects arrow IP5 - Agriculture arrow Project Description IP5a
Project Description 5a Print

Conditions of farming are increasingly influenced by rules and policies defined in international agreements. The international law of agriculture, essentially enshrined in the WTO Agreements, has been shaped in terms of improving market access, equal conditions of competition and thus efforts to limit economic protectionism. Considerations of increasing the
effectiveness of production worldwide have been in the foreground.

So far, considerations of sustainable production have been taken into account to a much lesser extent, except for the debate on genetically modified organisms. The multilateral trading system does not address the risk that increasing liberalisation may undermine the goals of long-term food security and food safety. It does not yet provide incentives to base food production on principles of sustainability. Incentives to maintain and bring about biodiversity in crops and to create the necessary conditions for farming, including equitable social conditions, to achieve such goals, have not been developed. While the problem has been addressed in the social sciences, the necessary legal tools and criteria in international law –against which the selected policies would have to be measured – have yet to be developed. The aim of the project described here is to contribute to filling this gap.

The project consists of two doctoral studies. The first aims at developing normative benchmarks for sustainable trade in agricultural products with a special emphasis on the concept of food security. The second relates to food safety. Special attention will be paid to risk assessment and risk management. It will be informed by the principles of sustainable agriculture as developed in the first study.

Project one: Sustainability and Food Security

In international law, the concept of sustainability goes back to the Brundtland Commission Report “Our Common Future”, 1987. According to this document, development is sustainable if “it meets the needs of present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. The view that the three components “economic development, social development and environmental protection are interdependent and mutually reinforcing components of sustainable development” has subsequently been repeatedly affirmed. Yet, the implications of sustainability and food security as the main objectives for negotiations on regulations for international agricultural trade under the umbrella of the WTO have not been well researched so far. Legal principles based on the concept of sustainability regarding trade in agriculture have not yet been explored. The literature in this regard has mainly focused on the concept of multifunctionality, which seeks to take into account “non trade concerns”. The concept of multifunctionality is, however, not necessarily congruent with sustainability. In this context, the project is aimed at developing normative benchmarks for sustainable agriculture and sustainable liberalisation of agricultural trade. The implications of the sustainability requirements for the concept of food security will be examined. The principles drawn from the concept of sustainability, as assessed in the study, will be compared with the principles enshrined in the doctrine of multifunctionality, as contained in Art. 104 of the Swiss Constitution and the new Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) of the European Union. Special emphasis will be placed upon the General System of Preferences (GSP).
Linking the concept of sustainability to trade regulation is a cross-cutting issue and thus part of the general discussion on linkage which had come up more generally among trade and environmental lawyers and, more recently, among trade, human rights and constitutional lawyers.

Project two: Food Safety and Sustainability

Project two examines food safety issues from the perspective of developing countries (DCs) and least developed countries (LDCs). These countries often lack the instruments to assess and manage risks related to food safety issues. The bulk of research on the relation between food safety and economic development focuses on market access and protectionism; far less is being done on the access of DCs and LDCs to techniques for ensuring food safety. Are the provisions of the WTO Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (SPS Agreement) regarding risk assessment and risk management workable for DCs and LDCs? Having delegated the authority for setting international standards to organisations with scientific expertise, such as the Codex Alimentarius Commission, the International Office of Epizootics and the International Plant Protection Convention, how can the interests of DC and LDC Members in the WTO system be maintained? These questions are of increasing importance in light of the introduction of biotechnology into the agriculture of DCs and LDCs.
Furthermore, the introduction of food safety regulations in agribusiness in DCs and LDCs changes the structure of agriculture. Increasing demand for investment in food safety measures squeezes small-scale producers out of the market. Examples including the poultry industry, fish production and the horticulture business in East African countries illustrate specific aspects of the problem.
The focus of the research is on bridging legal instruments to assess and manage risks according to the SPS Agreement with the quest for economic development, on the one hand, and sustainable agriculture, on the other. The precautionary principle provides a legal brace for a methodical analysis of these diverse topics.



Focus of individual researchers

  • Elisabeth Bürgi

In charge of Project One

  • Michael Burkard

In charge of Project Two


SNF - Swiss National Science Foundation The National Centres of Competence in Research are a research instrument of the Swiss National Science Foundation