The growing trade in agricultural products also means that consumers all over the world are eating food produced a long way from where they live, by production methods they know little or nothing about. Reflecting this uncertainty, consumers are also showing a strong interest in food safety, and demand that production and storage methods, particularly chemical treatments, follow international standards of safety and hygiene. Whereas in the past, systems of monitoring and regulation were mainly national, they are now becoming international. Farmers who hope to find export markets for their produce must take these trends into account.
The international seminar was held in order to provide information which will help Asian farmers respond rationally to WTO, so as to give them maximum benefit at minimum risk. The information will also help Asian governments protect the food safety of their own citizens, as well as meeting the needs of their export markets and consumers overseas. Some of the main findings of the seminar are shown below.
A basic concept in food safety is the maximum residue level (MRL), which is applied to both human food and animal feed. In establishing the MRL, the first step is long-term animal experiments, followed by an analysis of human food intake. In order to protect consumer safety world-wide, a global set of standards, the Codex (= Codex Alimentarius) has been set up under FAO. There is some disagreement about the MRL among Codex members. It was suggested at the seminar that Asian consumers would best be protected by MRLs which reflect Asian patterns of food intake.
Chemical treatments are widely used in modern agriculture, both when crops are growing in the field and to protect stored crops after harvest. An important aspect of food safety is to ensure that chemical residues in food are below MRL. All countries have established a code of MRL, and have regulations governing the production, sale and use of pesticides, with the aim of ensuring that residues in food remain below the permitted maximum level. However, enforcing these regulations is very difficult. Consumers and dealers cannot usually detect even high levels of residues in food, since they cannot be seen or tasted.
A number of countries in the region have sophisticated systems of monitoring and inspection for food. These are expensive. For this reason, integrated nation-wide systems of chemical testing are found only in countries with a relatively high GDP and high consumer incomes. The problem is most severe for crops with a short storage life, such as fresh fruit and vegetables. There is an urgent need for a cheap, rapid method of analyzing harvested crops, to make sure they do not contain dangerous levels of pesticide residues.
There was discussion at the seminar as to whether rapid bioassay met such a need (for a detailed description of rapid bioassay, see the 1999 FFTC Annual Report, p.22). Some participants felt that the procedure is not reliable enough to make it acceptable. Others felt that it is an efficient way of monitoring large quantities of produce before it is marketed.
Three industrialized countries which have national monitoring systems based on chemical analysis, Korea, Taiwan ROC and Japan, were represented at the seminar. Taiwan and Korea also use rapid bioassay, mainly in wholesale vegetable and fruit markets. The level of samples detected with residue contamination in Korea and Taiwan was 1-2% in 1999, but in Japan in 1996 was only 0.03%. This is in keeping with international standards, and may imply that consumers are safe when they eat vegetables and fruit. However, it was pointed out at the seminar that we must consider, not only toxicity to human beings, but the cumulative effect on the environment. This is something we still do not know much about.
For example, the POPs (persistent organic pollutants) are a global problem. They are volatile and unusually persistent. Transferred by jet streams, these may accumulate in regions such as the Arctic where they have never even been used.
We must also keep in mind the health of the farmer who becomes exposed to pesticides when he applies them. In many countries, especially those with tropical climates, farmers applying pesticides do not use the proper protective gear. To make things worse, many farmers use poor application methods, so that they inhale pesticides or splash them onto their skin. A survey in Korea, where farmers are better informed about pesticides than in many Asian countries, found that around 30% of farmers had suffered accidental exposure to pesticides which had affected their health.
Bulk imports of agricultural products may bring with them weed seeds, pathogens and insect pests. Many weeds found today in Asia, for example, have been accidentally introduced from abroad, usually as seeds. Often the first outbreaks occur near seaports or airports, and spread out from there. A study of recent weed invasions in Japan found a different pattern, with a new weed species suddenly occurring over a wide area. The source of the weed seeds seems to be imported feed grain. Passing through the digestive system of livestock, the weed seeds are being spread with the manure over farmland. Composting the manure was found to reduce the viability of the weed seeds to a marked extent. Normally the temperature of a compost heap rises during fermentation. Most weed seeds cannot survive temperatures over 57oC.
In livestock quarantine, a particular concern was FMD (Foot and Mouth Disease). This is a highly infectious and destructive disease of pigs, cattle and other ungulates. It can be transmitted in animal products such as meat, as well as by live animals. The spores which transmit the disease can be carried by wind over many kilometers, and survive dormant in soil for long periods of time. An outbreak of FMD in any country always results in a ban by trade partners on any livestock products exported from that country. Stopping the outbreak involves the eradication of livestock over a wide area, and an extensive vaccination program for livestock. In view of the destructive nature of this disease, an important recommendation from the seminar was that countries in the region should cooperate in sharing information about FMD, and developing measures to detect and control it.
Homogenization of insect pest fauna is taking place through biological invasions e.g. in greenhouses. The best way of halting or delaying the introduction of invasive alien species is to monitor neighboring countries, so that we know which species have invaded the region elsewhere. To do this, promotion of the international exchange of information is imperative. In parallel with this, the creation of systems for the early detection of new invaders and for prompt action to eradicate is urgently needed.
Asian countries are placing an emphasis on plant and animal quarantine and chemical residues. However, only recently have they started to reorganize the organizations responsible for these functions, or establish legislation for this purpose.
Most countries who import food items demand that the MRLs in imported food are compatible with those in food which is produced locally. This approach seems reasonable, but may sometimes be a serious problem to Asian farmers wishing to export their produce. Tropical fruit crops are an important export commodity in Asia. Fruit crops in the tropics come under heavy pressure from pests all year round. They are likely to need more pesticide applications than fruit grown in a temperate country with a cold winter. Countries with a temperate climate can use and enforce lower pesticide levels than is practicable in tropical ones. This may make it difficult for fruit exporters in tropical Asian countries to meet the standards of importing temperate ones, and give temperate countries an advantage in the competition for export markets.
A similar problem arises in the registration of pesticides. Developed countries are updating their registration programs. They are banning the use of undesirable pesticide groups. Many importing countries, including the United States, operate zero tolerance for residues of pesticides not registered for domestic use. In some cases, the reason for non-registration may be public health concerns, but in other cases, it may simply be because the importing country does not have any use for this particular pesticide. It may not have the relevant pest, or it may not produce the relevant crop. Exporting countries, especially those in the tropics, may find that such a ban excludes the cheapest and most effective pesticide available. Their farmers then have the problem that there is a lack of suitable alternatives at a comparable cost. An important recommendation of the seminar was that there should be close cooperation between exporting and importing countries in the development of technical skills and the resolution of economic issues.
Farmers in the region, and indeed throughout the world, benefit enormously from the development of effective pesticides which have both a low cost, and a low level of active ingredients. The effectiveness of such pesticides often depends on the timing, as well as the application method. An example is seed treatments which control weeds and pests after emergence.
All countries in the region are likely to benefit from more regional cooperation. Under WTO, national standards of MRLs and permitted pesticides are being increasingly replaced by international ones. Close cooperation would give the region greater influence, and help ensure that international standards are in keeping with regional needs.
Regional cooperation was also recommended for specific problems, in particular research and control programs for Foot and Mouth Disease. It was also recommended that analytical methods to detect FMD or pesticide residues in food should be standardized among the countries of the region. Other important areas for regional cooperation are training programs, and the development and use of technology related to food safety and quarantine procedures.
Held on October 16- 21, 2000
No. of countries participating: 8 (Japan, Indonesia, Korea, Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan ROC, Thailand, Vietnam)
No. of papers: 15
No. of participants: 15 plus 30 observers
Co-sponsors: Rural Development Administration, Korea National Agricultural Cooperative Federation, Korea.
Figure 1 Cooperative Packing Station Serving Many Small-Scale Orange Growers. Their Produce Is Pooled for Export.
Figure 2 Mechanized Sorting of Oranges at Cooperative Packing Station
Figure 3 Packing Fruit for Shipment