Region on the alert for possible new Covid-free sanitary barriers to international food trade
Buenos Aires, 13 July 2020 (IICA). The Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA) and the Group of Producing Countries from the Southern Cone (GPS) organized an international seminar on “Food safety in global trade in the context of increasing non-tariff barriers”. The event was organized with the support of the Argentine Oil Industry Chamber (CIARA) and the Cereal Exporters Center (CEC), in collaboration with Corteva Agriscience, the Argentine Beef Promotion Institute (IPCVA) and the Argentine Agency for Investment and International Trade (AAICI).
Various presenters addressed the meeting, including Manuel Otero, Director General of IICA; Juan Usandivaras, the President of the Argentine Agency for Investment and International Trade and Julián Echazarreta, the Argentine Secretary of Agriculture, as well as public and private sector representatives from countries in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Participants in the meeting voiced the concerns of Latin American food producing countries regarding access of their products to major global markets, particularly, with respect to the demands that China may impose in the immediate future.
Major actors from all aspects of the food export and import sectors addressed the meeting. Identifying the common interests within the region, the participants—ranging from those in the export sector to representatives of different public agencies–all agreed on the need for countries to coordinate their efforts as a region.
Gustavo Idígoras, President of CIARA – CEC remarked that, “One of our concerns is China’s attempt to impose new requirements, albeit, on a private basis, for now. The request for Covid-free shipments is absolutely unjustified from a health perspective”.
“We consider this to be a precautionary approach and an excessive and limitless exercise, which may create inconveniences and extra costs (for example, to test each shipment of meat)”, he said, “and it is something we feel does not apply and is not justified by science. This will create new barriers to trade, which we should work together to address as a region”.
Idígoras explained that, “This requirement was introduced ten days ago, due to the outbreak in Beijing. For now, it is only importers that are asking for these guarantees and not the Government of China. The importers claim that they are acting on the instructions of the Government, but no official regulation has been established.”
He advised that he had been meeting with export chambers in the United States and Brazil to agree on how to proceed in matters like these, indicating that, “We have outlined our concerns in writing, stating that there is no sanitary justification for this requirement. It is a clear foreshadowing of the types of requirements that could be imposed in the coming months and is something that will obviously be impossible to fulfill”.
Sabine Papendieck of the GPS group stressed that, “Latin America and the Caribbean must ensure a dynamic and fluid food trade flow, as we have no other alternative from a production, trade and financial perspective than to develop an aggressive agro-export policy”.
IICA Representative in Argentina, Caio Rocha, pointed out the importance of working towards a common agenda and discussing food production processes as a region. “We must assess the impact, from a health perspective – from the fields to shipment at the port”, he said. On the other hand, he cautioned that creating a health-related agenda would require discussions between the private and public sectors, remarking that, “Now is the time to bring together producers with those who are making the rules, taking into account the demand from consumers, to ensure more efficient production at the regional level”.
IICA’s Director General, Manuel Otero, highlighted the role of agriculture post-pandemic, commenting that, “Once this is all over, a new agriculture sector will emerge, in which the relative weight of social, and, in particular, environmental considerations, will be increasingly important”.
Otero insisted that, “If we hope to continue as the main food suppliers of the world, the region and most of all, the Southern Cone, will have to assume an active role in international forums to defend the legitimacy of our production model, striving to ensure that these demands do not give rise to a new generation of non-tariff barriers”.
President of the Argentine Agency for Investment and International Trade, Juan Usandivaras, stressed the importance of agrifood exports to his country, as they account for 43% of total exports. He warned that, “Current developments in relation to sanitary trade requirements—which will most likely become more restrictive—will be decisive for our future as exporters”.
He recalled that the “The pandemic had accelerated the use of digital technologies and ecommerce and many adaptations in documenting and operational processes had to be instituted in a hurry. The pandemic also escalated societal concerns about health, as well as food safety and quality. Today, pressure from Governments and consumers compels us to fast-track agrifood safety and quality certification, and to tailor our actions to international market requirements”.
Panel I: production and border logistic implications for countries in the region
The representatives of Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil explained the process of establishing food production and transport protocols in their countries. They also agreed on the importance of changes that had been instituted in transportation; social distancing; digitalization of documents, certificates and records and increased hygiene and cleaning in workplaces.
On the other hand, Eduardo Díaz, President of Uruguay’s Mercantile Chamber of Products and CEO of Cargill Uruguay, explained that, “From the outset a political decision was taken to support the production process and to protect people. Everyone at all levels acted responsibly. There were no positive cases in the chain, and we can assure the world that we are supplying safe grains and food”.
Francisco Turra, President of the Brazilian Association of Animal Protein (ABPA) and former Minister of Agriculture, commented that, “After the pandemic, international trade will be different, because countries have realized that the food security of their people needs to be examined more closely and there will also be increased concern about the self-sufficiency of some countries”.
“We have to believe that this complicated time will be pass and that South America will play an even more prominent role as suppliers of safe food to the world”, he said. Referring to China’s Covid-free requirements, he commented that, “This is more a case of giving the population an explanation for the outbreak that is taking place. It is really a matter of internal politics, but it has no scientific basis”.
Panel II: New non-tariff measures in the context of the pandemic
Denise Penallo Rial, Economist at UNCTAD, the United Nations specialized agency for trade and development, gave a presentation on public policies affecting trade. She argued that, “Restrictions notified to the World Health Organization (WHO) related to quotas and new export license requirements. All of these have been presented as temporary measures, if not, they would not have been accepted as legal. There has been greater tolerance, given that it involves the food sector”.
She went on to say that, “There have been other measures that facilitate trade, such as the elimination of import tariffs or removal of VAT. Some countries also implemented measures to ensure the availability of food and to make technical requirements more flexible. These are also non-tariff measures”. By way of example, Rial explained that “the European Union is guaranteeing food stocks, which could have an impact on global prices. Moreover, in addition to economic support, countries are talking about prioritizing local markets. Not all measures are negative, but we have to be careful”.
Panel III: Consumers’ food safety demands and the imposition of new sanitary conditions to access markets
An overview of the topic for this panel discussion was presented by a purchaser of Latin American food products – Jorge de Saja, Director of the Spanish confederations representing the animal feed manufacturing industry (CESFAC) and the oilseed crushers and refiners (AFOEX).
De Saja analyzed the key aspects of the current situation, offering reassurances with respect to EU’s importation of LAC products. Unlike countries like China that had decided to impose new restrictions, Europe does not believe that the pandemic poses a risk to food security in the same way as other past viruses of animal origin.
He insisted that, “We are witnessing a severe economic crisis, but still hope that there will be an abundant supply of food. It has been proven that food is not a vector for the spread of the virus, and for the most part, no-one is questioning its origin. Indeed, we are grateful for the supply, as we have had to deal with problems such as the closure of German meat packing plants, due to outbreaks of Covid-19”.
Final discussion: sanitary and food safety strategies to address the new challenge of exporting “safe food”
In the final section of the seminar, authorities from various Latin American countries explained how they had dealt with the pandemic – both the positive and the negative. Julián Echazarreta, Argentina’s Secretary of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries said that when the quarantine came into effect, the country’s harvesting season (soybean and corn) was already underway. He explained that, “We had to safely harvest between 80 and 90 million tons of crop to be able to assist the country and all our target markets, while also facing other challenges, such as the historic decline in water levels in the Paraná River”.
However, Echazarreta assured that, “By instituting the necessary protocols and collaborating closely with the various food chains, the country was able to fast-track the entire grain harvesting, transportation and trade process. In the meat sector, Argentina only experienced difficulties when there were outbreaks in two meat packing facilities, which were quickly contained”.
Pablo Balcazar, Executive Director of the National Agricultural Health and Food Safety Service (SENASAG) of Bolivia mentioned the challenge that the pandemic brought to food producers and merchants in his country. He reflected that, “The more than 100 days that we have been living with Covid have challenged us to change the way in which we produce food. Although we know that the virus is not spread through food, the world will demand safe food preparation and handling”.
Brazil’s Assistant Secretary of Agriculture Defense, Marcio Rezende Evaristo Carlos, said that the Brazilian food industry has continued to operate, after a great deal of work and the introduction of strict protocols. Referring to the Covid-free rules imposed by China, he said that, “We cannot allow these arguments to be made. There is no scientific evidence that the virus is transmitted through food. We are working to ensure the health of our workers and will continue to do so, but we have to be extremely clear about the difference between the two”.
Gonzalo Rios from Chile’s Agricultural and Livestock Service advised that throughout the pandemic his country had continued to enjoy a positive relationship, both with countries from which it was importing and countries to which it was exporting food. “We set up all our transactions via digital platforms and we have also been audited remotely, in the case of salmon”.
Pedro Molina, from SENASA in Peru, indicated that not only was the country able to maintain its level of exports and its target markets, but also managed to sell 8% more than last year. He said that, “We have been preparing and selling grapes, blueberries, avocados, green coffee, mango, asparagus, quinoa and other foods from Peru’s export basket, without any problems”.
He explained that the greatest adjustments that Peru had had to make were in its safety conditions in specific wholesale supply markets for domestic trade. “There was a great deal of informality in this sector. The Ministry had to establish mobile markets to organize trade and any market that had not put in place safety measures was closed down”, he said.
Carmen Berni explained that her country, Paraguay, had been working successfully with its neighboring countries to export its food products. “These challenges give us a glimpse of a future that will hold great opportunities for the region and one in which there will be many challenges in the new situations that may arise”, she said.
Finally, Uruguay’s Director General of Agricultural Services, Leonardo Olivera, indicated that Covid had not seriously affected local activity in his country, given that there had only been a few positive cases. “None of the cases were in the grain or meat sector. Nonetheless, all the protocols were established and implemented”.
In closing, Federico Villareal, IICA’s Director of Technical Cooperation, stressed the need for the region to adopt a strategic approach to international trade in the aftermath of the pandemic. “We will have to strengthen sanitary and phytosanitary services with the corresponding regulations, together with public and private partnerships, in order to take advantage of the tremendous opportunities that will arise”, he said.
Martín Piñeiro of the GPS group of countries reflected that the prevailing trends in the pre-Covid era will further evolve after the pandemic, predicting that, “Climate change, consumption patterns, food safety and information technology will all increase”.
Piñeiro thanked the health services in Latin America for having implemented the relevant protocols as best at possible, but warned that he saw a complex future ahead, saying that “Bilateral negotiations will be extremely important as importing countries are going to take advantage of the situation to define their own standards, and therefore, all of us in MERCOSUR must work together as one”.
Sonia Novello, Information Specialist, IICA Argentina.