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August 11, 2011

World Trade Organization

Humane Society International

Sea turtle conservation, seal and dolphin protection, animal health and food safety, and humane sustainable agriculture are examples of environmental- and animal- related issues discussed, negotiated, and sometimes disputed at the World Trade Organization (WTO). 

The WTO is comprised of 159 member countries, and is the world's preeminent organization governing international trade.  While its principal mission is free and open trade, environmental protection, sustainable development, and animal life and health are objectives woven into the WTO Agreements.  Despite this, there is not always agreement among WTO Members on how to prioritize these objectives vis a vis commercial concerns.  

Recognizing this, HSI strives to promote animal welfare and respect for the environment, natural habitats, and endangered species as issues that must be at the forefront of ongoing international trade negotiations at the WTO.  HSI is active on a number of fronts:

  • Through its role on the Trade and Environmental Policy Advisory Committee (TEPAC), HSI advises the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) on policy issues involving trade and the environment (including animals).
  • HSI attends WTO ministerial conferences, such as the one held in 2013 (Bali, Indonesia) where HSI Vice President Kitty Block was selected to represent TEPAC as a U.S. government advisor. 
  • HSI frequently provides comments and/or testimony to Congress and USTR regarding the intersection of animal protection and international trade issues. 
  • HSI closely follows and prepares amicus curiae briefs in WTO disputes involving animal issues. 

WTO Negotiations

The current round of WTO negotiations, called the Doha Development Round, began in November 2001 and is focused on lowering trade barriers while encouraging sustainable economic development. Although controversial issues such as agricultural subsidies have hindered recent progress, the passage of the Bali Package—which addresses some of the Doha Round agenda—at the Ninth Ministerial Conference in December 2013 may be a sign that the tide is turning.  A number of significant issues involving animal protection have been discussed, including promotion of humane sustainable agriculture and elimination of global fisheries subsidies.  Resolution of these two issues prior to conclusion of the Round would likely not only have myriad benefits for animals, but would also assist with economic development in developing and least developed countries.


One of the biggest obstacles to conclusion of the Doha Round is the need for agriculture reform in developed countries; specifically, the elimination of government subsidies given to agricultural producers in the United States and the European Union.  This reform has great potential to help alleviate poverty and level the playing field for the developing world, however, it must not be achieved at the expense of the welfare of farm animals in either developed or developing countries.

The WTO Agreement on Agriculture (AoA) allows governments to make unlimited payments for environmental programs as long as they are not trade distorting.  These are called "Green Box" subsidies.  To ensure animals are not victims of agricultural reform, HSI would like explicit acknowledgment that government payments to farmers or ranchers, which offset the costs of increasing animal welfare standards, are permissible "Green Box" subsidies.  

Improved animal welfare standards will benefit animals, respond to consumer demand, protect the environment, mitigate the spread of diseases hazardous to public health, and improve economic output.  (See HSI's 2008 submission to the WTO Animal Welfare, International Trade and Sustainable Development.)  For example:

  • Studies demonstrate that mistreating or withholding adequate veterinary care from animals results in reduced economic output; 
  • Consumers have a vested interest in how animals are treated and have increasingly expressed a desire to purchase humanely produced chicken, beef, pork, dairy products and cage-free eggs; and
  • There is a need to improve animal welfare standards in light of livestock diseases, such as outbreaks of foot and mouth disease, and avian influenza (bird flu).


Over time, government subsidies have facilitated overcapacity of global fishing fleets, which in turn has led to a depletion of fisheries resources.  Not only is this type of unsustainable fishing devastating to marine life, but it is also detrimental to many local fishing communities, particularly in developing countries, that rely on these resources for their livelihoods.

WTO Members are negotiating an agreement to address these subsidies.  Through its role in TEPAC, and in its individual capacity, HSI has been urging the U.S. to continue playing a leadership role in these negotiations and pushing for a strong agreement that substantially reduces subsidies and eliminates overfishing.

WTO Disputes

To date, some of the most well-known disputes at the WTO, and the WTO's predecessor the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT),  have involved animals. These disputes tested the flexibility of the WTO Agreements to allow members to impose trade-restrictive measures based on environmental and animal protection concerns.  It is clear from the outcomes that the Agreements do allow for such measures, as long as they comply with certain WTO rules. In the 1990's, several disputes concerned measures taken to protect dolphins from injurious tuna-fishing methods (Tuna-Dolphin) and to protect endangered sea turtles from deadly shrimp-fishing practices (Shrimp-Turtle). In the 2000s, a WTO dispute explored the impact on animal life and health from hazards resulting from the disposal of waste tires (Brazil-Tyres).

More recently, two disputes involving animals have brought these issues into the spotlight again.  The first was a resurrection of the prior disputes involving dolphin protection.  Mexico challenged the U.S. dolphin-safe label, which is only available for countries that opt not to intentionally set on dolphins while fishing for tuna in the Eastern Tropical Pacific. At both the panel and appellate stages, HSI submitted amicus briefs to the WTO supporting the US label, which ensures strong dolphin protection and continued consumer confidence in tuna products. Although the appellate body found the US label in violation of international trade rules for providing “less favorable treatment” to Mexican tuna products, the US decided to strengthen instead of weaken the law in order to come into compliance with the report, leaving intact a strong prohibition on setting on dolphins.  Unfortunately, Mexico has begun the process for sending the dispute back to the WTO for another round of hearings.  

The second involves the European Union's (EU) ban on the gruesome seal products trade, which its citizens do not want to contribute to and vehemently oppose. Canada and Norway challenged the EU seal ban at the WTO as discriminatory and overly trade-restrictive, arguing that an animal welfare certification scheme for seal products would be preferable and more effective. In November 2013, the WTO dispute panel released its report upholding the general ban on trade in seal products, merely finding fault with the ban’s exceptions.  The larger import of the ruling is the WTO’s acknowledgement that animal welfare is an issue of moral concern that a country may legitimately use to justify trade-restrictive measures.  HSI made a significant contribution to this victory by providing video evidence during the WTO hearings of the inherent cruelty of commercial sealing and by filing an amicus brief that the EU lawyers attached to their submissions for consideration by the panel.  Canada has already vowed to appeal the ruling, and HSI will continue to do whatever possible to help the EU defend the ban.  (See seal recent timeline here.)