The international grain trade needs better phytosanitary rules and tolerances for low-level presence of genetically modified (GM) crops, says Dennis Stephens, a consultant contracted to co-ordinate the Canada Grains Council.
“Zero thresholds are no longer obtainable,” Stephens told the council’s 42nd annual meeting in Winnipeg earlier this month.
“We’ve reached a stage where we have to find some new pathways to manage these issues because over the last number of years we’ve been having an increasing number of instances of trade being disrupted,” he added during an interview. “There are more effective ways of managing this.”
Under international law, phytosanitary rules allow countries to restrict grain imports if they contain pests that put their own crops or environment at risk. But exporters suspect the rules are sometimes used to protect domestic production or break contracts to take advantage of lower prices.
Increasingly, phytosanitary restrictions are popping up in the grain business despite growing concerns over food security and higher food prices, Stephens said.
One way to handle phytosanitary concerns is for importers to make sure the pests that might be in a grain shipment don’t spread, he said. So for example, if the concern is weed seeds, the importing processor should make sure all the imported grain is processed. Screenings, which might contain weed seeds, should be denatured before being sold for livestock feed.
Part of the problem is the ability to measure trace amounts. One weed seed is sometimes enough to reject an entire boatload of grain, said Kanwal Kochhar, national manager of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s grains and oilseeds section.
Low thresholds also make it difficult to obtain representative samples, she said.
Canada has volunteered to host an open-ended International Plant Protection Convention workshop to explore the development of an international phytosanitary grain standard, she said. But there’s also talk of creating a guideline instead.
Both Gary Martin and Rosemary Richards, the respective heads of the North American and Australian Grain Export Associations, said they prefer the latter. A standard regulation could be too inflexible and deter trade, they said.
It’s too soon to make that call, said Stephens.
“It’s critically important that industry get involved at a very early stage of its development so the governments involved have a clear understanding as to what the potential impact of different options could be on the ability to move commodities from surplus to deficit regions,” he said.
HELP OR HINDRANCE
Done correctly a grain standard could help exporters, but done badly, it could hurt them, Stephens said.
As Canadian flax growers know only too well, the infinitesimal presence of an unapproved GM trait can block trade. That’s why countries, including Canada, need to implement policies allowing the low-level presence of GM traits that have been approved elsewhere.
Canada has a zero tolerance too, Stephens said, and that makes it hard to lobby the EU to stop restricting imports of Canadian flax that might contain traces of CDC Triffid, a GM flax approved in Canada but not the EU.
“Low level of presence is not a health issue,” Stephens said.
If a GM crop has been approved for food consumption by one country with a creditable regulatory system, trace amounts of it pose no risk to consumers in countries, even if those countries haven’t approved it, he said.
Sometimes phytosanitary measures make headlines. China shocked Canada’s canola industry in late 2009 saying it would block canola imports that tested positive for the fungal disease blackleg.
It was astonishing on many levels. In 2008-09, China was Canada’s top canola seed market, importing 2.87 million tonnes valued at $1.3 billion. Moreover, China had imported and crushed 10 million tonnes of Canadian canola into oil and meal over the past 10 years without any reports of those imports being linked to blackleg infection in Chinese canola – not surprising given the Chinese processed the canola they imported.
Some wondered if blackleg was the real issue, as China has been pushing to boost its own agricultural production. Canada had also restricted imports of Chinese honey due to food safety concerns.
China also has blackleg, although the Chinese claim it’s not as virulent as Canada’s. And while Canadian canola is destined for crushing, there’s always the possibility of seed escaping into the environment between the port and the crushing plant.
China allowed Canada to continue shipping some canola to plants outside the canola-growing areas, but canola exports are still restricted.
– DENNIS STEPHENS