• Adriana Russo

Better food safety rules for better cooperation and better trade

As the world is moving towards a complicated future where pollution, deforestation and climate change are going to be the most probable constants in our everyday life, some countries seem to understand the threats ahead and are trying to change the course of events for the better.

The European Green Deal [1] and the recent Fit for 55 [2] packages are crucial tools for the future of Europe. These initiatives are set to promote and develop green and circular economies, emissions reduction, sustainability and development. The European Union is moving towards this direction by challenging and urging specific sectors – may those be the agri-food or the industry sector. The objective of these tools is to reach a certain defined outcome by a specific timeframe.

The surge of the pandemic in 2020 and the wave of green and sustainable movements around the world have brought much deeper attention to the subject of food safety.

The European Commission defines and safeguards food safety in its Farm to Fork Strategy [3], at the heart of the European Green Deal. This strategy aims to create a fair, environmentally-friendly food system, from production to the consumer’s house. It is also in line with the Sustainable Development Goals set by the UN for the year 2030 [4] and therefore making the EU the most prominent supporter of the green transition within and outside its borders.

If at the European level the amount of legislation and the broad consensus from the 27 Member States creates a solid basis for making sure that the guidelines will be followed and implemented, at the international level the situation may differ from state to state. In its new Free Trade Agreements, the European Union always aims to add a chapter concerning the subject – linked as well to the wider issue of climate change – by establishing common values and goals with third countries.

As far as Asia is concerned, the EU not only wants to manage international relations with non-EU countries and international organisations concerning food safety, animal health, animal welfare, animal nutrition and plant health [5], but it also created an EU-Asia Cooperation on SPS (Food safety, plant and animal health). [6]

The Cooperation project launched in 2019[7] has the objective to improve the conditions for the EU food and drink industry to access the markets of China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Philippines, South Korea, Thailand and Vietnam by seeking to improve the mutual understanding of sanitary and phytosanitary control measures in place. [8]

Considering its trade to the Asian continent, the EU exports to ASEAN countries spirits and liqueurs, milk powders, cereal preparations, wine and dairy products [9]. In China – which alone represents the second biggest market for the EU with 10€bn per year of exports – exports are mainly represented by spirits, wine and cereals; whereas India receives dairy products and olive oil. As for South Korea and Japan, in addition to several of the aforementioned categories, exports mainly consist of chocolate and sugar. [10]

This picture of European exports towards Asian countries gives the idea of how rich and multifaceted this market can be. The situation is very similar the other way around, with a strong prevalence of rice and pork imports from China.

But how can trade among these countries work smoothly? The controversial CAI agreement would set the basis for fair and sustainable trade between the EU and China. India is now the main actor in the future trade negotiations of the European Union and safety and sustainability are among the main topics of discussion. For instance, the Vietnam-EU relationship gives the reader a broader vision of these topics. Firstly, the FTA with Vietnam is a recent agreement signed in 2019 which means that many recent issues have been added in the agreement. Secondly, it does not only stress sustainable trade, but addresses issues such as labour and environmental matters. [11]

Bearing in mind that different lifestyles and different ways of production that every single country or region has developed during the centuries should always be taken into consideration, the issue of food safety and sustainability are now crucial for the future. In the frame of the Geographical Indications, defined as a sign used on products that have a specific geographical origin and possess qualities or a reputation that are due to that origin. In order to function as a GI, a sign must identify a product as originating in a given place. [12] For the European Union, where GIs are a crucial part of productivity and trade, the safeguard and the promotion of sustainable and safe practices of these geographical indications are crucial. In 2020 EU and China signed an agreement on the reciprocal protection of GIs against usurpation and imitation. [13] The necessity of such an agreement was due to various charges and legal actions from EU member states against China. The document stated that the majority of the products concern wines and spirits as well as Greek feta cheese, Spanish olive oil, and Italian vinegar. The Commission stated that it had no objection to EU’s GI producers taking legal action to revoke ‘counterfeit’ trademarks in China “as part of a normal procedure under trademark law”. [14]

In 2017, for instance, Greece and other EU countries filed a lawsuit against Beijing for counterfeiting products protected by GIs rules. The problem did not only concern the issue of misappropriation of protected products, but also the issue of placing unsafe products on the market. GIs are products that enjoy great protection and are renowned nationally, regionally and internationally. This notoriety means that the protection and food safety of the product must be guarded.

Considering the main partner among the aforementioned countries, China and the EU have started to discuss these issues years ago and recently, on 14 September 2020, they reached an agreement protecting European Geographical Indications.[15] This necessity also arises from the fact that the EU and China have suffered many times from trade problems due to food fraud, as the aforementioned lawsuit of 2017 on GIs.

In the agri-food sector, the FTA will be a critical tool in the development of more sustainable practices. What the future FTAs want to achieve is for developing countries to support development policies and food security, which is a pivotal input considering the previous FTAs with developing countries.[16] For instance, the EU-India Leaders’ Meeting held on 8 May 2021 agreed to resume negotiations for an ambitious and comprehensive free trade agreement (FTA) and to launch separate negotiations for an Investment Protection Agreement and an Agreement on Geographical Indications (GIs).

In the EU-India trade cooperation framework, it is worth mentioning that both parties have reached an agreement to restart negotiations for a crucial FTA to be implemented in the following years.

India is a fast-growing country with incredible potential and a strong agricultural sector, which would probably make it one of the most important agreements that the EU could sign in the years to come. Approximately 60 percent of the Indian population works in the industrial sector, contributing about 18 percent to India's GDP; [17] 70 percent of its rural households still depend primarily on agriculture for their livelihood, with 82 percent of farmers running small and marginal plots of land. [18]

These data show how food security regulations with India would mean better food safety both for the EU and for India itself. The opportunity of creating strong links in the sphere of the agri-food sector in India means that in the future it would be possible, for the EU, to create such ties with other countries and probably dictate the safest road towards a more sustainable future.

To conclude with, the food sector’s safety is essential right now. What the Covid-19 pandemic brought up is the necessity to create a more sustainable framework able to tackle future crises and to support the world’s population both in terms of supplies and quality. The EU, as leader and promoter of a proactive change in favour of the green economy, has of course an interest in maintaining its predominance in the discourse about food safety. The EU boasts numerous GIs, countless international and local producers who promote and move the sustainable turnaround. Succeeding in breaking through the food security policies of great powers such as China and India would mean securing a privileged position both from a cooperative and a commercial point of view. Asia is a continent that can give a lot, but its rapid development sometimes overshadows crucial issues for a development that can be defined as safe – and food security is one of them.

Better food safety rules will lead to better cooperation, a better way of living and a better chance for the environment and the future of everyone and the world.

[1] European Commission (2019), A European Green Deal, https://ec.europa.eu/info/strategy/priorities-2019-2024/european-green-deal_en

[2] European Parliament (2021), Fit for 55 Legislative train schedule, https://www.europarl.europa.eu/legislative-train/theme-a-european-green-deal/package-fit-for-55

[3] European Commission (2020), Farm to Fork Strategy, https://ec.europa.eu/food/horizontal-topics/farm-fork-strategy_it

[4] United Nations Foundation (2021), Sustainable Development Goals, https://unfoundation.org/what-we-do/issues/sustainable-development-goals/

[5] European Commission (2021), Food Safety, https://ec.europa.eu/food/index_it

[6] EU-Asia Cooperation on SPS (2021) https://eu-asia-sps.com/

[7]Aets Consultants (2019), EU-Asia Dialogue on SPS, https://www.aets-consultants.com/news/eu-asia-dialogue-on-sps

[8] Ibidem

[9] European Commission (2021), Asia & Australasia, https://ec.europa.eu/info/food-farming-fisheries/trade/agricultural-international-trade/bilateral-agreements/asia-and-australasia_en

[10] European Commission (2021), Asia & Australasia, Japan, https://ec.europa.eu/info/food-farming-fisheries/trade/agricultural-international-trade/bilateral-agreements/asia-and-australasia_en#japan

[11] World Intellectual Property Organization (2021), Geographical Indications, https://www.wipo.int/geo_indications/en/

[12] CAZZINI Francesco (2020), “EU and China around the Same Table= The New Agreement on Geographical Indications”, Regulating for Globalization, http://regulatingforglobalization.com/2020/12/01/eu-and-china-around-the-same-table-the-new-agreement-on-geographical-indications/

[13] CARRENO Ignacio, DOLLE Tobia, PEREZ Lourdes Medina, SIMOES Bruno G., VERGANO Paolo R., 2017, “Trade Perspectives”, FratiniVergano, http://www.fratinivergano.eu/en/issue-number-16-8th-september-2017/

[14] European Commission (2020), EU and China sign landmark agreement protecting European Geographical Indications, https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/IP_20_1602

[15] In the Vietnam agreement, for instance, the topic is discussed in a more general vision linked to trade and sustainability within trade, but food safety is not directly addressed.

[16] Statista (2021), Agriculture in India, https://www.statista.com/topics/4868/agricultural-sector-in-india/#topicHeader__wrapper

[17] Food and Agriculture Organization (2021), FAO in India, http://www.fao.org/india/fao-in-india/india-at-a-glance/en/

[18] Ibidem