Giugno 16, 2020

To What Extent Do EU Free Trade Agreements Really Pursue Sustainable Agriculture?

The global attention towards sustainable agriculture is rising exponentially and the European Union (EU) is openly committed to embrace it. Yet, to what extent does this commitment actually translate into practice?

Considering the free trade agreements (FTAs) reached by the EU with third countries, Luchino Ferraris terms this question more specifically: is Europe really able to guarantee that all the foodstuffs ending up on European tables meet its internal agricultural production standards? In what ways does the EU ensure that imported and exported agri-food products, as well as being safe for the health of consumers, respect adequate sustainability thresholds within the productive process itself? And, how can Europe prove that the countries from which it imports these products have established limits to greenhouse gas emissions and give due consideration to natural resource conservation and animal welfare?

In his book The pursuit of sustainable agriculture in EU Free Trade Agreements, published by Wageningen Academic Publishers in April 2020, the Author offers an insightful and cross-cutting contribution to this debate by trying to identify the degree to which the EU pursues sustainable agriculture in third countries by means of its FTAs. Within this framework, the work is structured into three parts. The first examines the concepts of sustainable development and sustainable agriculture and their collocation within the European normative framework. The second delves into the FTAs, exploring their main features in the context of the EU common commercial policy (CCP) and concentrating on the key issues to assess the level of sustainability pursued in agriculture. The final part applies these considerations to six case studies in relation to agreements concluded with developed countries (Canada, South Korea and Ukraine) and with developing ones (Chile, the Southern African Development Community and Vietnam).

The decision to start with an analysis of sustainable development and sustainable agriculture highlights at the outset the fundamental limitations imposed by the intrinsic vagueness and ambiguity of these concepts. In the EU legal order, the two are not accompanied by any official definition or a clear operationalisation. The only certain point is a common understanding of the concept of ‘sustainability’ as referring to a balance between economic, social and environmental factors. Ferraris notes that sustainable development appears to be more of a ‘meta-principle’ than a ‘ready-to-use normative principle of law’, while sustainable agriculture is like an ‘umbrella concept’ that is problematic to conceptualise and pin down to a defined set of practices that could be enshrined in legislation. Although the research of a legal basis within EU law does not produce truly encouraging outcomes, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is still sufficient for the Author to identify an EU model of agricultural sustainability, the environmental standards of which, he claims, appear to be higher than those of most FTA counterparts.

The volume then shifts its focus to the FTAs, beginning with an interdisciplinary examination of their features and main challenges. It then considers their articulation in the context of the EU trade policy, the characteristics of the trade partners and the different typologies of agreements. Finally, it focuses on aspects related to their judicial review and what Ferraris defines as the ‘sustainability test’ with regards to the European Court of Justice. This section also scrutinises the ‘trade and sustainable development (TSD)’ chapter, the regulatory cooperation, and enforcement mechanisms as relevant issues to evaluate the sustainable component of FTAs.

The third part of the research examines selected agreements and, overall, shows that whilst they are likely to produce negative impacts on the environment, the three elements per se are not sufficient to cope with it.

This analysis led the Author to argue that, although each case must be assessed under its specific circumstances, it is, at the very least, legitimate to doubt that the agreements concluded until now guarantee a perfect symmetry between the internal environmental standards and those adopted by the EU counterparts. In all of the considered cases, there are reasons to believe that the agreements do not reach adequate sustainability levels. In other words, it seems that while EU agri-food products must pass some of the highest thresholds in the world, the gap created by the FTAs means that Europeans are also likely to find foodstuffs on their table that do not meet these internal standards and can be produced without due consideration for greenhouse gas emissions, natural resource protection and animal welfare. In particular, the volume underscores that the FTAs must be compatible with the EU legal order, particularly with the Treaty provisions on the EU CCP, establishing explicitly that the EU is bound to pursue sustainable development in its external action. Nonetheless, from Opinion 2/15 – on the EU-Singapore FTA – it can be drawn that the Court of Justice does not judge that the sustainable development thresholds applying within the EU legal system should also be taken as a benchmark for EU external action.

Thus, the book sheds light on at least two crucial issues for the future of sustainable agriculture. First and foremost, at the EU and international level, sustainable agriculture must be officially defined through specific parameters in order to become a legal rule. Alternatively, it could remain a vague ‘umbrella concept’ only if the clarification process involves the various agricultural approaches that fall within it, such as organic agriculture, biodynamic agriculture, integrated farming, permaculture, natural agriculture, regenerative farming and conservative agriculture. At present, the only specific practice with a defined legal framework is organic farming and their remains a widespread misunderstanding and overlap amongst the other terms. In addition to being a fundamental premise for the effectiveness of the sustainable paradigm within the FTAs, this aspect is essential to implement sustainable agriculture per se; to compel policy-makers to raise environmental thresholds and to set tools for its enforcement.

Secondly, the work identifies major gaps in the agro-environmental dimension of the EU sustainability model, unveiling substantial inconsistencies between internal and external actions. In this regard, the research also has the merit to conclude on some encouraging developments and practical solutions. Among them, and an avenue deserving of further investigation, is the previously mentioned so-called ‘sustainability test’ concerning the Court of Justice. The Author notes that the Court could, or, as he suggests, ‘should (?)’, play an important role in assessing the agricultural sustainability established in the texts of the FTAs, and thus ensure greater coherence to the EU approach.

Finally, it is worth mentioning that the analysis, in addition to being the outcome of a doctoral thesis, is enriched by the experience gained by Ferraris as a Legal Officer at the European Commission in the agro-environmental sector and, therefore, benefits from an internal perspective with regards to the dynamics surrounding EU agricultural policies.

As highlighted in the Foreword by Daniel Calleja Crespo, Director-General for Environment in the European Commission, we live in an unprecedented era of global environmental crisis and the EU is at the forefront to tackle this challenge. The ‘new-generation agreements’ are a consistent step towards ‘more’ sustainability, but much still needs to be done and The pursuit of sustainable agriculture in EU Free Trade Agreements provides a detailed image of what the obstacles are and what concrete remedies can be adopted in order to overcome them.

Share this:

About Erica Leni

Erica Leni

Erica Leni is a PhD candidate in Human Rights and Global Politics at Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies. Her doctoral project concerns small farmers empowerment from the perspective of the relationship between land rights and agroecology and with a focus on Myanmar. She holds a Law Degree from the University of Trieste and an LL.M. in Human Rights Law from Queen Mary University of London. Erica has several study and work experiences, including at the University of Paris X Nanterre, the British Institute of International and Comparative Law and New York University Abu Dhabi in London, and, for the PhD project’s purposes, she has recently been Research Intern at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Yangon and Visiting Researcher at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.

  • Email