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Do the rules of the World Trade Organisation affect our animal welfare laws?

International trade has increased exponentially since the 1950s, including Australia’s imports and exports of animals and animal-derived products. The World Trade Organisation (the WTO) is responsible for overseeing the conduct of international trade, the development of international trade agreements, and the resolution of trade disputes. 153 countries are members of the WTO (member States), including Australia.

One of the primary objectives of the WTO in performing its functions is to further liberalise international trade by reducing tariffs (such as import taxes) and other technical barriers to trade. The WTO seeks to achieve this is by ensuring that member States comply with their international trade obligations as set out in the various trade agreements. These agreements are generally referred to as ‘WTO rules’. The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade 1947 (or the GATT) is the most significant of the international trade agreements.  The GATT prohibits member States from imposing restrictions on the import and export of products.

So how do these laws affect Australia’s animal welfare laws? The prohibitions under the GATT limit Australia’s ability to determine what international trade it will engage in. In particular, they limit Australia’s ability to restrict the importation of animal–derived products that are produced using practices that would be illegal under Australian animal welfare laws. This limitation has the potential to undermine improvements in Australia’s own animal welfare laws.

For instance, if Australia was to improve its animal welfare laws by phasing out the use of sow stalls in pig farming, the Australian market for pig meat products could be flooded with cheaper imported pig meat products derived from lower welfare production systems that continue the use of sow stalls. As a result, the Australian pig industry may incur economic losses and there would be no overall benefit to animal welfare due to the continued use of sow stalls in the exporting countries. This concern forms part of the basis for why Australian agricultural industries oppose improvements in animal welfare laws.

Fortunately however, there are exceptions to the GATT’s prohibitions on restricting or prohibiting imports and exports. When developing the GATT, the international community acknowledged that in certain circumstances a member State should be allowed to restrict or prohibit its imports or exports. These circumstances are set out in Article XX of the GATT and include measures necessary to protect ‘public morals’. Concerns for the welfare of animals have been recognised as an issue which falls within the ambit of public morals.

Accordingly, Australia may enact measures which restrict imports or exports based on animal welfare concerns. There are already numerous examples of trade-restricting measures designed to protect animal welfare in the EU, the US, and also Australia.  They include, among others:

  • The EU’s ban on the importation of certain seal products
  • California’s ban on the importation and sale of duck and goose liver derived from force-feeding practices;
  • The EU US and Australian bans on the importation of dog and cat fur.

When enacting such laws the key issue to consider is the manner in which the measure is implemented.  Adopting a cooperative approach to addressing the animal welfare concerns with the relevant trading partner through consultation, efforts to create bi/multinational agreements, and the provision of technical or financial assistance before the measure is imposed will strengthen the measure’s justification.

The WTO Trade Dispute Panel, looking at the dispute around EU’s ban on the importation and marketing of seal products, recently recognised that ‘animal welfare’ can be used as a moral ground to restrict trade. This could have tremendous implications for maintaining and implementing similar trade restrictions based on upholding public morals when it comes to animal welfare.

Concerns regarding potential inconsistencies with WTO rules should not be used as an excuse to delay or reject improvements in animal welfare laws.This is known as the ‘regulatory chilling’ effect and risks undermining Australia’s national policies, values and autonomy.

Updated on May 2, 2019
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