The European Union market represents a huge commercial opportunity for African agriculture. Agribusiness operations in countries like Egypt, Kenya, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Ghana have long benefited from growing special crops for export to Europe, particularly of fruit and vegetables. In recent years, organized groups of small scale farmers have also been able to tap into the lucrative EU market. It is therefore vital for African exporters to keep up with the increasingly stringent requirements of this market.
With products entering it from more than 200 countries, the EU has developed wide-ranging legislation to ensure the safety and standardisation of its food imports. There are concerns that these standards are also now being used as protectionist, “non-tariff barriers” to trade in contravention of World Trade Organization requirements for more openness in global trade. Nevertheless, these standards are simply an unavoidable, non-negotiable fact of life for African exporters.
The WTO agreement on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Standards (SPS) is important for all agro-exporters to keep in mind. Its key features are described as for “All countries to maintain measures to ensure that food is safe for consumers, and to prevent the spread of pests or diseases among animals and plants.” The SPS can include measures to do with food additives, animal and plant hygiene issues as well as product inspection, processing and many other issues. Within the broad WTO guidelines, individual countries or trade blocs like the EU have considerable latitude to tailor the guidelines to their particular requirements.
The minimum standards the exporter must meet are those that carry the force of law in the EU. However, there are also a number of “private” standards by various influential consumer, retail or other groups that exporters are increasingly compelled to meet as well. An example is GlobalGAP (previously EurepGAP), and the Global Partnership for Good Agricultural Practice. These can be more stringent than government-level standards, adding considerable cost and complexity to the export process. Each producing and/or exporting entity must carefully calculate for itself whether the hoped for export premiums justify the stringent requirements and costs.
At the production level, increasing environmental awareness, health and social concerns in the EU mean a reduction in the number and quantities of allowed pesticides. Producers have to rely on frequently more expensive “safer” permitted chemicals, adding to production costs. Many agro producers are increasingly turning to more biologically-based methods to stay within the EU’s minimum pesticide residue limits (MRL), but they can be difficult to practice.
Failure to comply with these requirements can mean the rejection of shipments, with disastrous consequences for farmers, the exporter and the whole chain of people in between. It can also mean being banned from future export. It is therefore of critical importance that African agro-exporters have a mechanism to keep up with the EU’s changing standards, knowing the requirements, and production-level mechanism for monitoring their implementation. This means taking into account farmer or worker literacy levels, for example.
An increasingly important export consideration is that of farm-to-supermarket shelf “traceability.” Many EU supermarket chains now insist that meticulous records be kept on the whole chain from planting origin to the harvesting, processing, storage and transportation processes food products undergo. This not only makes it easy to trace problems, it is also being increasingly used by consumers to make purchasing decisions.
Pollution-linked to climate change concerns have caused some consumer groups in Western countries to insist on the banning of the air-freighting of agricultural produce from distant producing countries. One of the effects of this is still small but growing trend in the US, EU and UK for the purchase of local over imported produce. The effect of this on African agricultural exporters will be to act as another “standard” to meet, and a potentially significant barrier to trade. All the various actors involved in African agricultural export would be foolish not to be informed of these market trends, and actively participate in lobbying efforts to ameliorate their potentially disastrous economic effects.
Some African countries have made efforts to take advantage of organic agriculture’s general closeness to traditional, natural farming methodologies to benefit from the extra premiums of meeting certified organic standards in the EU market, where the demand for organic food is booming over health and environmental concerns. Almost all such African produce is air-freighted to the EU and UK from countries such as Ghana and Kenya, among others.
The nature of organic production and its accompanying social ethos have made it possible for organised smallholder groups to access this niche export market, often making a significant contribution to increased farm earnings and improved livelihoods. In addition to meeting all the basic EU or UK food products requirements, organic produce must be certified to meet additional requirements. The certifications are done according to one of several available standards, and are carried out at significant cost by various approved private certification bodies.
One prominent organic certification body is the UK’s Soil Association. It recently held a public consultation on whether it was consistent for produce certifiably grown organically in say, Kenya, but then exported to the UK by airfreight to still qualify as being “organic.” The argument by some is that the environmental and other benefits of the organic production are cancelled out by the pollution involved in air-freighting it over such a long distance. One of several proposals was for the SA to no longer allow the certification of such transported crops as organic, regardless of the production process. The compromise position that was eventually adopted was not to de-certify such produce, but for the “pollution deficit” of air freighting to be compensated for by the produce now needing to also meet “fair trade” standards. This has at least temporarily saved the African organic horticultural sector, but will also add significant extra costs to qualify for the SA’s “organic” level and its associated market premiums.
This is an excellent example of the market pitfalls that African agro-exporters face in addition to the potential benefits. What is required to keep abreast of these trends and changing standards is close cooperation between African farmers, exporters, national standards and trade bodies, as well as with importers and regulatory bodies in the EU. Among the sources of information on constantly changing EU standards are various EU technical assistance schemes, the internet and private consultants. The bewildering complexity and flux of these standards may be intimidating, but exporters have no choice but to ensure they comply with them.
By Chido Makunike
Makunike is an Agricultural Consultant in Dakar, Senegal. He was nominated for the 2007 Society for New Communications Research (SNCR) Award of Excellence in the New Communications Program.
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