Background There is a long-standing debate about whether and how trade agreements may impact on nutrition policies. The debate centers on whether powerful countries and multi-national corporations may invoke trade rules in order to prevent governments in other countries from introducing effective interventions, including nutrition labelling designed to promote healthy diets. Most research examining this possibility has considered whether and how technical rules in trade agreements are - or can be - invoked to contest nutrition labelling policies. Yet, this overlooks how trade agreements may be used by powerful agents to exert normative and ideological pressure concerning the causes of nutrition-related illnesses and appropriate policy design.
Setting In this article we conduct a critical discourse analysis of the non-technical arguments and discursive strategies used to challenge nutrition labelling policies proposed by Thailand, Chile, Indonesia, Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Uruguay at the World Trade Organization (WTO) between 2007 and 2018. We analyse the normative and ideological claims used to challenge these policies, and assess whether and how power imbalances manifest in these arguments using Gaventa’s typology of power.
Results Our discourse analysis shows that nutrition labelling debates at the WTO feature normative and ideological arguments concerning the causes of nutrition-related diseases, legitimate policy goals, and the scope of acceptable means for achieving them. For example, members state that obesity is complex and no foods play a particular role in the development of nutritional diseases; they argue that policies should promote industry innovation; and they support policies encouraged healthy ‘choices’ and consumer awareness. These arguments are regularly made by high-income members, including the US and EU, and share marked similarities with industry arguments used to contest nutrition policies in other fora.
Conclusion Our analysis suggests that powerful countries and multi-national corporations use WTO rules to shape trade partners’ understanding of the causes of nutrition-related diseases, legitimate nutrition policy goals, and the scope of acceptable means for achieving them. In short, trade agreements can be used to influence normative and ideological foundations of nutrition interventions, and this creates scope for a subtle mobilisation of power to shape policy.
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