Ergot in Egypt — One Event or Symptom?

A guest editorial submitted by Cam Dahl, President of Cereals Canada:

It is baffling. Egypt is a country facing food shortages yet they are blocking wheat shipments from around the world. Their quarantine agency has decided to impose a zero tolerance for ergot. This is despite the fact that the contracts signed by Egypt’s central buying agency recognize the international, science-based tolerance of 0.05 per cent.

Some may think that 0.05 per cent is a pretty small number and not really a whole lot different from zero. “Some” would be wrong. Zero tolerance brings us into the realm of parts per billion and parts per trillion. A part per trillion is equivalent to one second in 32,000 years – a small number but one still bigger than zero.

Why is this important? For Egyptians it might very well result in bread lines, since countries will simply not be willing to take the risk of arbitrary decisions by regulators and imperfect testing systems that can kick out false positives almost randomly when looking for such minute amounts.

There are implications for Canadian farmers too. This is not just a “one off” event but a symptom of a larger, and growing problem. As tariff barriers fall some countries use non science-based grain safety excuses to block trade in an attempt to drive down prices or to prop up their own agriculture industry.

The result is the same even if the application of arbitrary rules are well intentioned but misguided. Unscientific rules of trade impede or even stop the flow of grain.

Canada has a strong reputation for consistently delivering safe, high quality grains, oilseeds and special crops to our domestic and international customers. The foundation of this reputation is our science-based regulatory system. Our approach reduces the risk that exports will be blocked by sanitary and phyto-sanitary regulations.

Maintaining “science-based” is not just a job for regulators and chemical companies. Farmers have responsibilities too.

For example, the label on every crop protection product is determined by the Pest Management Regulatory Agency based on in-depth research. Not following the label can result in increased residues. This puts our exports at greater risk from arbitrary decisions like the one we saw in Egypt because residues just might give some government an excuse to keep our grain out. Not following the label may also generate residues and could even bump residue levels above the science-based maximum residue limit, in which case importers have legitimate food safety concerns.

The risk of these incidents is growing. It is not valid to think “they will never test” or “grain from my farm won’t make a difference”. They may test and when measurements are in parts per trillion, just a few farmers not following the rules may result in rejected shipments.

Some basic things to ask before applying any crop protection product:

  • Am I applying at the rate indicated by the label?
  • Is the crop covered by the label?
  • Are there restrictions on when the product can be applied (too green, too late, etc.)?
  • Am I respecting the “swath to harvest” interval?
  • Have major markets approved this product (if you don’t know ask your agri-retailer and grain buyer)?

Following these rules will not eliminate risk. There is nothing that farmers could have done to prevent the arbitrary decisions by Egypt. But following the label, knowing if there are market risks from particular products, using best management practices to minimize disease infection all reduce market risk. As any marketer will tell you risk comes with a cost and everything we can do to reduce costs improves our international competitiveness.

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