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Defending European values in the World Trade Organisation?

Exploring the relationship between EU food regulation, WTO law, and the social disintegration of markets

Funded by the NWO, the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research, this two-year research project explored, if and to what extent WTO trade rules give WTO members, especially the EU, the leeway to consider ethical, socio-economic, cultural, ecological and animal welfare concerns when regulating food. The project was finished in July 2014.

Using several case studies, such as GMOs, animal cloning, seal products, and tuna products, the project showed that WTO members can legitimately invoke consumer, especially animal welfare and ethical, concerns, and that recent WTO decisions show a trend towards greater deference to domestic policy choices in this respect. However, such deference depends on compliance with certain legal principles of WTO law, such as non-discrimination, proportionality, and reason-giving. Moreover, a particular challenge in this area is the need to reconcile consumer preferences and values in the developed world (eg EU and US) with the needs and concerns of developing countries. The particular example of the long-standing US-Tuna dispute between the US and Mexico, analysed within this project, illustrates that striking a fair balance can be a daunting task. Finally, a major finding of the project is to indicate a broader shift in EU regulation of food and food-related products from mainly science-based and precautionary approaches to more value-responsive approaches. This shift is due, among others, to previous negative experiences of the EU when defending precautionary approaches in the WTO.

The findings of her project will be published as journal articles and book contributions in 2015.


The project was carried out by Dr Maria Weimer, ACELG researcher and assistant professor at the Department of Public International Law and European Law. Dr. Weimer received a personal research grant (Rubicon) from the Netherlands Organization of Scientific Research. The excellent quality of this research project was demonstrated by the outstanding ranking it received during the NWO selection process. The project had been ranked as No. 1 out of a total of 109 applications in the ‘Social Sciences and Humanities’ section.