Keywords: Voluntary private standard schemes, food quality, food safety, ethical production, environmental standards, SPS Agreement, TBT Agreement, market entry barriers, product liability.
Abstract: Criteria defining 'good agricultural practice' (GAP) were originally developed for on-farm production methods and resource use. For a decade, GAP principles have been applied throughout the entire agri-food supply chain by organisations promoting voluntary private standard (PS) schemes. Although the stated aim of such schemes is to provide consumers with guarantees of food safety and quality, they are strongly driven by the desire to reduce transaction costs within the chain and to limit the legal liability of chain operators and retailers in the wake of food safety lapses. They raise issues concerning their compatibility with the polluter pays principle, the legitimacy of the standard-setting process, potential duplication of the safeguards enshrined in public legislation, and the extent to which they erect barriers to market entry and impede competition. The extension of voluntary PS schemes to global food chains raises further questions about their compatibility with sustainable development goals and with WTO rules regarding import restrictions based on production methods. Current challenges include the operational coexistence of mandatory public standards and voluntary private standards in the agri-food arena, and how they might be better harmonised within national and international legal frameworks.
'Good agricultural practices' (GAP) are defined as 'practices that address environmental, economic and social sustainability for on-farm processes, and result in safe and quality food and non-food agricultural products'.1
According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO),2 four GAP principles apply to all scales of farming, and are:
- economically and efficiently produce sufficient, safe and nutritious food,
- sustain and enhance the natural resource base,
- maintain viable farming enterprises and contribute to sustainable livelihoods, and
- meet the cultural and social demands of society.
When translating these principles into specific measures and incentives, agricultural policy in both the European Union (EU) and the United States (US) has tended to prioritise the second principle3, although the concept as applied in the EU is a little wider than in the US.4
In the last decade or so, the application of GAP principles as defined above has been extended well beyond the farm. In 2003, it was noted that 'the use of GAP is also being promoted increasingly by the private sector through informal codes of practice and indicators developed by food processors and retailers in response to emerging consumer demand for sustainably produced and wholesome food'.5 This development has tended to rebalance the emphasis given to the four principles of GAP, with a particular focus on the first.
The present article documents this trend and addresses some of the issues arising from it.
EXTENSION OF THE GAP CONCEPT
The core definition of GAP relates to on-farm practices involving agricultural production (e.g., specific technological choices, natural resource conservation and use, effluent disposal, on-farm storage of inputs and outputs). Recent years have seen the extension of GAP applications in several dimensions. In the horizontal dimension, additional on-farm aspects like animal welfare and worker health and safety have been included. In the vertical dimension, GAP principles have been defined and applied increasingly beyond the farm gate to sectors upstream from farming (e.g., animal feed and plant propagation material) and downstream (e.g., slaughter, transport, food packing and processing).
This trend has been driven by the development of voluntary private standards (PS) for a range of food production, processing and product attributes. It is important to recognise that this development has two very different origins. A number of large, multi-product, chain-oriented PS schemes originated in the- European or North American retail sector, whereas a heterogeneous group of more specialised PS organisations have sprung from charitable NGOs each with its own particular environmental, social or ethical perspective. In the following discussion, if it is necessary to distinguish between them, these two types of PS scheme will be referred to, for convenience, as 'mainstream' and 'niche' schemes, respectively. A key difference between them is the likely market share for the attribute(s) their standard guarantees. Most, if not all, consumers will respond to assurances that food is 'healthy', 'safe' or 'produced in an environmentally responsible way', but only a segment of the market will attach extra value to attributes like 'organic', 'turtle-safe' or 'fair trade'.