(Beyond Pesticides, December 10, 2007) In a global first, over 300 crop safety and pesticide management officials and other experts met last week to discuss challenges associated with pesticide use on “specialty crops” like garlic, ginger and chilies. The Department of Agriculture (USDA), the United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organization and the Environmental Protection Agency organized the week-long Global Minor Use Summit, which took place at the FAO Headquarters in Rome, Italy. Unlike large-area, highly-traded crops such as corn, wheat, rice or cotton, specialty crops have traditionally been produced in relatively small amounts. As a result, studies on the use of pesticides in the cultivation of specialty crops have not been as systematic or widespread as they have been for major cash crops. Producers, many of them in the developing world, face barriers to export their goods to overseas markets with strong safety standards for imports.
International trade in specialty crops is booming, thanks in part to increased levels of human migration and modern preservation and transportation techniques. FAO data show that trade in non-traditional agricultural exports is worth more than US$30 billion a year. Developing countries have a 56 percent share of that trade. “For some countries and crops, like green beans in Kenya and exotic fruits in Malaysia, these ‘minor crops’ aren’t minor at all — national economies depend on them,” according to Gero Vaagt, a specialist with FAO’s Plant Production and Protection Division.
“There has been considerable interest in the opportunities which the fair trade and organic markets could offer to producers or exporters of non-traditional products, particularly those in developing countries,” according to the FAO technical paper, The market for non-traditional agricultural exports. “It is apparent, however, that the current market for fair trade and organic produce is still small relative to that for conventional produce and vulnerable to over-supply,” the FAO report continues, taking a cautious approach to organic agriculture.
The conference focused on how producers can more easily export non-traditional crops, as import standards aimed at protecting human health become increasingly strict, especially in developed countries. One major problem is that there are gaps at the international level in terms of registered uses for pesticides on specialty crops. Registration is the process through which national authorities evaluate which pesticides can be used by growers, and under what conditions. If a pesticide is permitted for use on certain crops, maximum residue limits (MRLs) are set that aim to quantify how much pesticide residue a product can safely contain. Prior to seeking approval, manufacturers typically conduct extensive field tests and other studies whose results are used by regulators when deciding to approve and register a pesticide. Since this involves a significant financial investment, they tend to focus on pesticides used on major crops only.
“There is little financial incentive for studies of pesticide use for minor crops, and as a result accepted MRLs are lacking, especially at the international level,” explained Shivaji Pandey, Director of FAO’s Plant Protection Division. “This means that when a specialty crop reaches an import market it can be rejected. The pesticide found on it might have been properly applied and existing in safe amounts, but because there’s no registered use for it on that crop, it fails the ‘zero tolerance’ litmus test.”
“What we’re trying to do is to look at ways to come up with more harmonized protection measures for these crops that are efficient, suit the needs of farmers, facilitate trade, ensure food and environmental safety, and benefit consumers,” Pandey said. In particular, he added, following the summit, FAO hopes to see more MRLs for pesticides used on specialty crops established at the international Codex Alimentarius level. Codex is a joint FAO-World Health Organization body that sets international standards for food safety, standards which are relied upon by the World Trade Organization when resolving trade disputes concerning food safety and consumer protection.