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The biofuels dispute is the latest in a series of cases in which the fundamental compatibility or incompatibility of trade law and the agenda of “sustainable development” is being worked out. The WTO Secretariat, in fact, describes sustainable development as a central goal in the founding charter of the WTO. But WTO law has already been used to challenge other environmental laws, such as U.S. laws seeking to protect sea turtles from certain shrimp trawling boats (laws were upheld with certain conditions), and E.U. measures restricting the importation of GMOs (measures found in violation of law).

That day at the WTO, I was set to interview officials about the biofuels case. My host, an officer in the organization’s Secretariat, brought me up a finely constructed staircase and down a hallway lined with offices painted in very light gray. My first interviewee, a member of the Committee on Trade and Environment (a subcommittee of the WTO’s Seretariat) began to explain what her group had been doing on biofuels. She explained that while biofuels had not explicitly been discussed in her committee, carbon footprinting had been on the agenda since 2001. But nothing tangible had been done on the issue.

I came away from my interview thinking that the Committee on Trade and Environment hadn’t made much progress: countries seemed more interested in talk than action.

After a series of interviews trying to get to the heart of the matter, it was time for lunch. I started wandering towards the cafeteria. Descending another staircase, I discovered a beautiful set of murals and art deco mosaics. They seemed to be celebrating labor.


This seemed strange to me, given that labor and free trade are often seen to be at odds. In fact, it’s a sore spot among labor rights advocates that WTO law doesn’t seem to recognize as legitimate many laws that try to promote good labor standards.

Sometimes discoveries in the field are serendipitous. With my curiosity piqued, I had to do some research on the WTO’s website to get to the bottom of these beautiful art works. It turns out that the WTO building, Centre William Rappard, originally housed the International Labor Organization! It moved out to make room for the WTO predecessor organization in the late 1970s. The Florentine mansion is, in other words, an architectural irony.

The ironies multiplied as I made my way to the cafeteria located on the ground level. I was delighted by the handsome spread in the salad bar. As I brought my salad to check out counter, I found myself staring at this sign.