For farmers, the Codex is crucial

Canadian farmers are rightly worried by the potential impact ongoing international trade disputes can have on their livelihoods.

The uncertainty surrounding the future of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is just one of these concerns.

However, there is another market access challenge that merits attention but may have escaped notice amid the twisted tangle of Twitter diplomacy: the erosion of international standards for pesticide and herbicide residues.

Since 1961, the Codex Alimentarius has provided a common set of standards for food safety, ranging from nutrition labelling to maximum residue limits (MRLs) for pesticides.

Scientists and officials from 185 member countries, as well as one member organization (the European Union), contribute to the development of these standards, while about 150 non-governmental organizations and 49 intergovernmental organizations act as observers.

The standards established in the Codex are voluntary — member countries have the prerogative to set their own standards to ensure the best consumer protection within their borders.

However, in recent years, some countries have been rapidly developing their own separate standards. In the most recent example of this, China notified the World Trade Organization (WTO) in February that it had developed draft standards on MRLs for 107 pesticides. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which comprises 10 member countries, including potential major markets like Vietnam and Indonesia, has been working to set harmonized MRLs independent from the Codex, accounting for 71 different pesticides so far.

The development of national lists is not on its own a concern. After all, Health Canada has set some MRLs separate from, but informed by, the Codex. What is concerning, however, is the degree to which some national lists are being developed independently from the work of the Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAC) and the pace at which these lists are being developed.

A common set of standards provides Canadian farmers with predictability and ease of mind when spraying crops, while the proliferation of various MRLs for different markets will make pesticide use extremely complicated over time. This is especially true of those markets where a national list is used but the regulatory system is less sophisticated than that seen in China. In such scenarios, the MRL often defaults to 0.01 parts per million (ppm), effectively zero tolerance. Rejected shipments, in turn, create friction in what could otherwise be a healthy and mutually beneficial trade relationship.

Canada should encourage partners to participate in the work of the CAC, through which they would inform the standards and guidelines in the Codex rather than developing national lists. This would ensure consistent rules to which farmers globally can adhere when applying pesticides and herbicides to crops. This would have the additional benefit of ensuring the Codex is not undermined as the basis for resolving disputes within the WTO regarding food safety and consumer protection.

The urgency of championing the Codex cannot be under-stated. Much as China and ASEAN are developing their own MRLs, there are increasing calls in India for the local capacity to monitor pesticide residues and enforce limits.

Engagement now will avoid Canadian farmers and agricultural groups having to navigate a regulatory mishmash later.

Paul Pryce is the director of agriculture and agri-food at the Alberta Council of Technologies.

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