In the past 25 years, agriculture has seen a full gamut of new programs from environmental farm plans to neonicotinoid-use restrictions in Ontario. Some are relatively farm friendly, some less so.
Like them or hate them, they’re all meant to be in the name of sustainability, traceability and food safety and security, which are under the watchful gaze of an increasingly urban population.
Now add one more set of guidelines to that list: maximum residue limits (MRLs). Unlike the others, which are imposed at the farm level, MRLs are creating confusion on an international stage and have garnered more attention in light of recent trade agreements. In spite of the potential benefits of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Comprehensive Economics and Trade Agreement (CETA), there is also the opportunity for trade disruptions from MRL-based disputes.
There are two primary issues. One is the establishment of tolerance levels for registered chemistries, and the other is the backlog of registrations before Codex Alimentarius, a combined agency of the World Health Organization and the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
The first issue brings into play the science of detection, which has become finer and finer over the past 30 years, so we can often measure in parts per trillion today, not just parts per million.
Despite that evolution, however, many of the countries Canada trades with still apply strict zero tolerances, making trade standards unpredictable and a stumbling block in trade relations.
The second component involves Codex and its near-four-year backlog, which can also create significant barriers to trade. In that four-year period, countries might be trading commodities based on mutually agreed standards, yet Codex could establish a different MRL, thereby putting their inventories at risk.
It’s also worth noting that the maximum residue limits play a larger role in trade relations and negotiations on the horticultural side of agriculture. Pulses are also affected, and there’s a greater potential for disagreements with some cereal and canola crops.
It’s about trade, not safety
“When we look at the issue in terms of actual trade impacts, it’s not that significant,” says Pierre Petelle, vice-president of CropLife Canada. “We’re not seeing a lot of interventions internationally in terms of ships being turned around or stopped. That said, there have been some cases, and there is growing concern about some export markets’ willingness to defer to Codex, for example, or other established MRLs, and wanting to establish their own.”
Petelle points to MRL discrepancies in wheat and canola over the past 12 to 18 months, which suggest that no crop is immune.
What’s needed most is to find a balance between trade risks and having a dialogue that assesses actual food safety. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen as a general rule of thumb, but case by case and crop by crop. To maximize the value of this process the dialogue must include the chemistry developer right from the outset. That approach is favoured over a “do nothing” default, and for very good reason.
“If we take a position of ‘Don’t use these products — period — until all of the export markets are fully established with MRLs,’ we could have a tremendously negative impact on innovation and new chemistries coming to Canada,” notes Petelle. He refers to that as an “innovation chill” to be avoided not just because of the money invested by chemical companies but because of the potential impact on growers’ access to new technology.
Says Petelle: “It’s finding that balance between managing the risk on the export side and not stifling innovation and growers’ access to new solutions.”
Petelle acknowledges that MRLs can and have been used as a non-tariff trade barrier, and it’s possible this will continue, with some countries rejecting a boatload initially and then offering to buy it later, but at a reduced price.
Meanwhile, the reputation of Canadian agriculture is called into question.
Petelle also says the confusion created by the misperception of MRLs as a food safety issue is one of the biggest challenges facing agriculture. He cites one case where media backlash and public misunderstanding hindered efforts to modernize or harmonize the establishment of MRLs with another country such as the U.S., yet it had nothing to do with food safety.
Trade and export dependent
Chris Davison agrees this MRL confusion puts Canada’s export-dependent agriculture at risk. As such, there’s a need to pursue MRLs and import tolerances as they are required, and to reduce trade barriers for growers and exporters. That’s accomplished through the efforts of developers and registrants of products, as well as the collaborative efforts of grower groups, government agencies and other stakeholders within the value chain.
“A second factor is that we’re obviously operating in a very complex trade and regulatory environment,” says Davison, head of corporate communications for Syngenta Canada. “With MRLs specifically, this is illustrated by the fact that not all countries set MRLs at the same time — or at all. So we continue to work with a variety of stakeholders to establish and harmonize MRLs wherever possible.”
One factor in that scenario is the changing landscape in which MRLs are being established or modified around the world. Another is the fact that a pesticide may have a different registered use pattern in different parts of the world due to differences in geography and climate, plus dietary and cultural preferences that might determine the crops that can be produced.
“To build on it even more, the definition of a residue for a given pesticide may differ among countries, and there are also different methodologies for calculating MRLs,” says Davison. “The bottom line coming out of that is that MRLs for the same pesticide and commodity combination may differ among countries and regions, ultimately resulting in a barrier to trade. But the message has to be reiterated that MRLs are standards intended to facilitate international trade in agricultural commodities — full stop.”
The call to action now is to work towards harmonization for MRLs. Davison believes more harmonization is possible, but it’s going to require the participation of all stakeholders. It’s not a matter of saying one sector or one crop is more important than another; it comes back to that trade component, where Canada is so reliant on trade and “getting along” with other partners.
“Where maybe it gets some more attention in different markets is that Canada is dependent on export markets, and different crops have different export markets,” says Davison. “Some of them have a lot more markets that are smaller, some have bigger markets, but fewer. So it’s not that one is more important, just that not all crops go to the same markets.”
From Petelle’s perspective, discussions must continue, and the companies that develop the chemistries and technologies must be at the table. There, they can provide the detailed, science-based information on the chemistry’s application, its active ingredients, how it breaks down and the methodologies for detection and in what parts of the plant it can be detected.
Petelle also says government must participate too: “The Canadian government can play a key role in this process, both from a harmonization and technical level, and from a trade level trying to get some recognition early on in trade discussions, whether they’re bilateral or multilateral.”
The government could also be a little more strategic and perhaps better co-ordinated, although Petelle believes there’s sufficient support from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada as well as Foreign Affairs. And he praises the efforts of the Pest Management Regulatory Agency on the technical side. Yet questions remain about who’s representing whom at the international level.
There is also the issue of the federal government dropping its subscription to an international database that provided organizations such as the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association and Pulse Canada with up-to-date MRL tolerances in different countries. That occurred in mid-2014. In the spring of 2015, the MRL working group (under Pulse Canada’s lead) pooled some of its own funds and purchased a subscription to a database that provides all MRLs from every country that has such standards. It also offers market intelligence about proposed changes, unpublished changes or speculative information from all of the participating countries.
The other fly in the ointment is the backlog within Codex’s harmonization process. Some of the hurdles include funding or human resource gaps within the agency’s structure. Solving those issues will not be quick or easy.
But Codex needs to make other changes too, Petelle says. “For example, many countries got involved in global joint reviews of chemistries several years ago. You had Canada, U.S. and Australia as the countries — and then sometimes a new country could be part of that, and they would review the dossier together and one country would have the lead.”
Yet trying to get Codex to recognize the co-operative work of agencies that negotiate with such openness is often the difficult part.
“Recognizing that there are efficiencies to be gained from acting more like a peer review of existing work, rather than starting from scratch with the raw data every time — that would demonstrate some forward movement and recognition of the same people,” says Petelle.
It wouldn’t make Codex into a rubber stamp. The agency would still do a thorough peer review, and it would be done at a point that’s well advanced instead of opening up the raw data every single time.
And there are some signs of progress: Petelle notes there’s an MRL calculator at the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) level.
But agriculture says more can and should be done.