In a global playing field, harmonized regulations—and improved communication—are essential to ensure the flow of seed across borders.
“What we need in the seed industry is a predictable, transparent system, where seed tests are certified by all countries, [and] where import requirements are harmonized and predictable, so companies can make rational decisions,” says Ric Dunkle, the American Seed Trade Association’s senior director of seed health and trade. “The ultimate solution to that is to have international standards.”
In an increasingly complex and competitive trading environment, predictability is the Holy Grail.
Dunkle’s is one of many voices calling for increased harmonization of regulations across borders—recently, a major push for internationally-recognized standards has kept the conversation vibrant in government and industry offices around the globe. But there are many obstacles that make this difficult.
Differences in national trading goals, protectionist policies and language barriers are all factors that complicate the movement of seed across borders. And at the base of many of these issues is communication.
Lines of Communication
One example of a barrier obstructing trade is the complexity of phytosanitary regulations—according to Dunkle, understanding a given country’s phytosanitary regulations is always a challenge, but it can be compounded when that country does not post up-to-date requirements online, or when new tests are requested on import permits that had never been requested formerly. Occasionally, an importing country will list new pests and diseases on the import permit—but the exporter has already harvested the seed by the time they apply for the permit.
Import requirements can get even more tangled. A recent issue that has emerged is that some countries are requiring different risk assessments than in the past—meaning that a seed company may complete all requirements to ship seed to a country they have been doing business with for 30 years, only to have the seed held up at the border.
If importing countries do not notify the WTO of changes to import regulations, “[companies] hear about them when they try to ship their products in and can’t meet the requirements. Then we need to call our government to call their government,” says Dunkle.
Language differences can be significant barriers to trade.
Shifts in policy also apply to packaging. Occasionally, says Dunkle, a country that has previously required that seed certification be adhered to packaging by stapling will suddenly require that tags be sewn onto packaging, which—again—results in shipments being held up at the border, and the need for government intervention. Even among free trade nations, technical barriers can throw monkey wrenches into the machinery.
Denise Dewar, executive director of plant biotechnology with CropLife International, says that one hot-button discussion which can be polarizing for different nations, and thus cause obstructions to the seed trade, is the issue of farm-saved seed. “Many countries have different standards around farm-saved seed and that can affect their access to high-quality seeds, in the sense of countries not having favourable intellectual property rights,” says Dewar. “A company, in order to participate in the flow of seed trade, wants to know that their intellectual property will be protected in order to do business in a country. If that’s not the case, the seed trade will be affected.”
Shipping biotech seed also comes with its own issues. “The issue of low level presence of biotech events in seed shipments is an important global issue which needs to be addressed,” says Dewar. “The industry is working very hard on getting clear guidance in place so we can address those issues and keep the seed trade moving.”
Many of these difficulties are actually due to poor communication within countries rather than deliberate obstructions by importing companies, according to Dunkle. When a country’s government and industry have strong lines of communication some of these problems can be alleviated. In the United States, for example, “ASTA has worked very hard to create a positive and transparent relationship with the government, and so we have good lines of communication. But in other countries that’s not always the case,” says Dunkle.
In some countries, “there’s a lack of trust between government and the industries they regulate. When the government doesn’t understand how an industry works and what its problems are and the impacts of its regulations, in some cases they’re overtly protectionist,” he says.
ASTA is also working hard to smooth the lines of communication abroad, according to Dunkle, in order to better understand particular countries’ barriers, whether they are phytosanitary or have to do with intellectual property protection. But there is more to be done.
“When you’re trying to get X number of countries to work together and overcome language barriers, it takes a lot of energy and time and effort, but ultimately there’s a good payoff.” —Ric Dunkle
Bridging the Divides
As food security becomes an increasing concern in some countries, it becomes more crucial than ever that the seed industry overcomes these barriers. “If you agree with the future predictions for climate change and population growth, getting barriers reduced to seed trade will be pivotal in order to increase agricultural production,” says Dewar.
Differences in national priorities and sudden changes to regulations are perhaps the most obvious barriers to overcome, but foundational to these problems is a failure to communicate. Different nations speak disparate languages and have different cultural norms, and these can create essential problems affecting trade.
Language differences alone are significant barriers to trade, according to Dunkle. “It’s a very arduous [process],” he says. “When you’re trying to get X number of countries to work together and overcome language barriers, it takes a lot of energy and time and effort, but ultimately there’s a good payoff on the other end.”
However, increased and improved communication can be a catalyst for solutions if the seed industry approaches the table with the end-goal of harmonized regulations which are beneficial for all parties.
“There’s a burden on the seed industry at large to communicate with governments around the world so we can work together to develop standards and regulations that hit the mark—for governments to protect countries and for the industry,” says Dunkle.
Dewar agrees that the solution lies in improved—and regular—communication. If the seed industry wants harmonized regulations, she says, this “requires governments talking to each other and working with each other, and also explaining their views and their concerns, as well as the economic opportunities [at stake], and working through the various national and international forums to get the appropriate standards in place so that the industry has predictability.”
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