Canadian farmers are being encouraged to use an industry alert program to keep unacceptable pesticide residues on crops from spiralling into potential trade problems.
The voluntary program called Keep It Clean informs producers about which products to use on cereal, oilseed and pulse crops and which ones to avoid so as not to exceed maximum residue levels (MRLs) for agricultural commodities set by importing countries.
An MRL is the largest legally tolerated amount of a pesticide residue in or on food or feed when pesticides are applied correctly.
Canada’s agriculture industry is highly dependent on exports. Ninety per cent of Canadian canola production, 85 per cent of pulses and 65 per cent of wheat, barley and oats are exported annually. But trading partners sometimes come up with “weird non-tariff trade barriers” and “non-science-based pesticide policies” to try to keep imports out of their countries, said Gord Kurbis, vice-president of trade policy-crop protection for the Canada Grains Council.
For that reason, Kurbis urged farmers to stay alert and be aware of MRL tolerance levels before they blossom into trade issues.
“We don’t want pesticide residues to become part of that. So, in a lot of ways, this is a proactive thing,” he said.
That’s where Keep It Clean comes in, issuing alerts and advisories on its website about which products to use and which ones not to in order to prevent potential problems in various export markets.
Keep It Clean is a joint initiative of the Canola Council of Canada, Pulse Canada, Cereals Canada, Barley Council of Canada and Prairie Oat Growers Association. Kurbis and other commodity group officials spoke about it during a recent webinar presentation.
The website tracks countries Canada might be concerned about, pesticides that could be a trade problem and how to identify a possible close call before starting to worry, Kurbis said.
Although agricultural exports must meet standards set by importing countries, tolerances for pesticide residues and traces of disease vary from market to market. Testing equipment is getting more sensitive and new technology can detect levels close to one part per billion and sometimes even parts per trillion.
But countries don’t always have official MRLs for certain active ingredients, Kurbis said. In such cases, they may enforce zero tolerance (no residues allowed) until standards are formally set.
Since determining their trading partners’ MRL policies can be tricky, exporting nations need to be vigilant, Kurbis stressed.
“Until that gets fixed, just about every country we export to has a policy that says, we don’t have an MRL in place, (so) we’re going to apply the principle of zero tolerance. And for just about every country in the world, that takes the form of 0.01 parts per million.”
To classify potential risks, Keep It Clean employs a traffic system of green, yellow and red warning lights. Green means no market risks identified in major markets, red stands for do not use this product and yellow means this product could become an issue, so check before using.
Later in an interview, Kurbis said he got involved with MRLs 10 years ago when shipments of lentils to Europe experienced problems with residues. Since then, every other crop, including wheat and canola, have had MRL issues resulting in alerts on the Keep It Clean website at one time or another.
“If there’s something on the Keep It Clean website, that means there is a market access issue that needs to be managed,” Kurbis said.
He said it’s critical to have scientific tolerances for residues to avoid public pressure to impose restrictions on imports that are not science based.
“The concern is that if you ban a pesticide domestically, there could be pressure inside your own borders to say, well, if we can’t use it, then the people we’re importing products from shouldn’t be able to use it either. That’s the concern.”
Launched in 2006 by the Canola Council of Canada, the program was first known as Export Ready. Keep It Clean came into being in 2016 when the council, Cereals Canada and Pulse Canada in partnership decided to make it “a one-stop shop for all pesticide recommendations,” said Heidi Dancho, communications director for the Canola Council of Canada.