Secondary Standards Don’t Make Agriculture More Sustainable
Selling fresh produce in the European Union (EU) is not an easy task. The regulatory environment has tightened sharply over the past decade. To give you just one example, the number of active ingredients has decreased by roughly 67% to a total of 250 between 1993-2012. Farmers have done well at adapting to the new conditions. According to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), 97% of the samples tested are within the maximum residue levels (MRLs).
Yet all the efforts that have been made are apparently not enough. Many retailers have developed private schemes that go beyond the EU standards. One might say that this is great because consumer concerns are being taken seriously, and farmers who fulfil the stricter standards could act as a catalyst and function as an incentive for smallholding farmers. However, in my opinion, private secondary standards are not based on science and have a lot of disadvantages that carry over through the entire value chain.
Global Head of Food Chain Relations at Bayer Division Crop Science
Farmers need tools to tackle pests and diseases
Banning or restricting certain products doesn’t automatically lead to sustainable agriculture. Farmers need tools to control pests and diseases so they can be sure they are protecting their crop and maintaining or increasing productivity. In some cases, active ingredients have been prohibited or restricted even though their positive results have been scientifically proven if applied according to the instructions on the label. In addition, in an integrated pest management (IPM) program, you need to rotate products with different modes of action in order to avoid resistance.
This is an even more serious problem for minor crops such as mangoes, cacao, and coffee, since there’s a limited number of alternative products to choose from. In fact, one might disapprove of these restrictions and say that we need innovative tools. And I would completely agree. However, it takes time to develop and implement them on the farms, and growers need to produce today using the tools they have at hand.
Secondary standards lead to confusion
As I see it – and the European Association of Crop Protection agrees – secondary standards also have disadvantages for retailers. Over the years, more and more standards have been introduced, which has led to confusing and inconsistent ordinances and increased coordination costs. Furthermore, this limits the number of varieties retailers have to offer. On top of that, in fruit and vegetable sector in particular, retailers often struggle to comply with so-called cosmetic standards, such as blemish-free skin or conventional shape.
I’m convinced that individual standards are undermining confidence in the existing science-based European approval process. But simply complaining about it is not going to solve the problem. We at Bayer Food Chain Partnership seek to foster dialog and work closely with different partners across the value chain, while also finding sustainable solutions for growers and food chain partners. Efforts should be focused on capacity building for the farmers so that they use plant protection products in a safe and efficient manner – instead of companies putting pressure on farmers by eliminating alternatives.
Learn more about Food Chain Partnership here.