Why would a country require its imported food to be fumigated to kill pests with a chemical particularly harmful to the ozone layer when the food can be demonstrated to contain no pests?
That is a question we want to ask India about its requirement that pulse imports be fumigated with methyl bromide.
The situation provides a great example of the type of sanitary, phytosanitary and technical trade barriers that rarely capture headlines but nevertheless bedevil international trade.
And India is not alone.
The ongoing canola dockage issue with China threatened trade. The issue is now on hold for four years while the two parties research how much of a threat dockage poses to China’s rapeseed crop.
This sounds a bit like a deal announced in 2009 when then federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz and his Indian counterpart announced the two countries had agreed to set up a joint working group to develop a “permanent resolution” to the fumigation issue over the next year.
They were working on a resolution even before this, and it might not be a surprise that we are still waiting.
The issue goes back to 2004 when, in an effort to protect domestic production from stem and bulb nematode and other pests, India’s government ordered all shipments of pulse crops to be fumigated with methyl bromide at the port of loading.
There were a few problems with that.
First, methyl bromide fumigation works poorly in Canada’s cold weather, and it is an expensive process here.
Also, methyl bromide is a chemical particularly destructive to the Earth’s ozone layer, and its use is being phased out.
To address the first issue, Canadian officials got India to agree to a temporary arrangement in which fumigation could take place in India, where it is cheaper and more effective.
India has since provided extensions of the arrangement for six-month periods. Typically, the waiver is extended a few weeks before the expiry deadline, but not always.
This month it came down to the wire, which imposed unacceptable risk for pulse shippers who had boats in transit to India without the assurance that the cargo would be accepted at destination.
And the true kicker to the story — Canada has almost none of the insect pests that India wants to keep out.
A survey soon after the fumigation requirement was imposed found that of 2,200 samples, only three had nematodes.
Pulse Canada would like the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to begin talks with India to see if new technology could prove to the buyer’s satisfaction that the grain is 100 percent pest free, requiring no fumigation.
Negotiations on this particular issue are important, but it is also important to move ahead on bilateral trade agreements with India and China to address non-tariff trade barriers on a wider basis.
Many in Canada believe India’s fumigation requirement and China’s dockage issue are in reality tools that can be used to limit imports and protect domestic producers. Neither country is part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade process, but both will loom large in the future of Canada’s trade.
The two countries have a combined population of 2.7 billion, or 36 percent of the world’s population, and the trade opportunities are immense.
But for all to benefit we need trade rules and a dispute settlement system to address disagreements in a fair and timely manner.