Today’s agricultural markets present a double-edged sword: there are opportunities like never before but there is also the potential for greater risk.
The fractured consumer market has created demand for many specialized niche products, opening up new ways for farmers to generate cash flow. Those products usually require controlled production methods and precise end-product specifications. They cost more to produce, which is hopefully offset by their higher sales price.
However, due to the need to deliver on exact specifications, one small misstep can ruin the reputation of a farmer or an entire sector.
Farmers recently heard an example involving gluten-free oats. In this case, farmers were told that even a fraction of a percent, or one barley kernel in a bag of oats, can void the guaranteed purity of the product.
A minuscule presence of gluten in a bag would go unnoticed by some people who choose to eat gluten-free, but it could have serious health consequences for celiac sufferers. Clearly, goods targeted at people with diagnosed health conditions require a unique and tightly controlled production stream.
However, few specialty products are actually filling markets in which the need is so critical. As well, players operating in those markets — farmers, commodity groups, countries and international trade organizations — have long wrestled with standards for maximum residue limits.
Yet a possible solution exists.
The Codex Alimentarius Commission has established acceptable limits on a comprehensive list of products. For example, the Codex states that gluten-free products must contain no more than 10 milligrams of gluten per kilogram.
However, the tricky part has been trying to get all the major trading countries to adhere to it.
Today’s sensitive testing methods, which can detect in the parts per billion range, mean that more and more conflicts over acceptable contamination levels are almost inevitable in the future unless thresholds are agreed to.
Without more countries agreeing to follow Codex standards, there could be dire consequences similar to what occurred a few years ago when the European market was lost to Canadian flax after minute amounts of an unregistered GM variety were detected in shipments.
Canadian flax sales tanked and the industry has spent the years since then flushing any potential remaining GM seed out of pipeline. It is only now starting to return to some of its former glory.
A similar catastrophe can happen in any sector.
Codex, the potential solution, has been tough to put into practice, but put it into practice we must, because a simple wrong Twitter message or inflammatory Facebook or Instagram post can quickly gather steam. Brands can be damaged and reputations ruined. And once lost, trust can take years to restore.