By Sharon Atieno

A group of 33 World Trade Organization (WTO) members, called on the European Union (EU) to suspend and review all processes currently underway for pesticides maximum residue levels (MRLs) that restrict the import of fruits and vegetables from third world countries, as well as the entry into force of the MRL reductions planned for 2020, in response to the impact on trade caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The proposal which was presented in a meeting of the WTO Committee on Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) Measures, stressed that under the current circumstances, the implementation of certain SPS measures that create additional restrictions or burdens on international trade in animals, plants or plant products constitutes a challenge that hinders worldwide economy recovery efforts, especially in developing countries.

The proponents of the initiative -Kenya, South Africa, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Sierra Leone, Senegal, Togo, Mali, Liberia, Egypt, Carbo Verde, Côte D’ivoire, Benin, The Gambia, Ghana, Guinea ,Guinea Bissau and others- say that agricultural producers, particularly the smallest, and MSMEs would be greatly affected by new measures and more restrictive requirements for exports, such as the reduction of MRLs for plant protection products.

They note that their request while enabling members, especially developing countries, to focus their efforts on addressing the pandemic and its effects; it would also allow producers, particularly the smallest and most vulnerable to continue to trade their products, guaranteeing the flow and supply of food globally.

The proper functioning of global agricultural and food supply chains in response to the crisis, including through the non-implementation of unjustified barriers to trade, should be ensured and the EU is key to achieve that goal, the proponents added.

 According to the members, millions of people rely on international trade for their food security and livelihoods, thus measures that facilitate trade will have a significant impact in the fight against the pandemic and its consequences, ensure the flow of food and other agricultural products, protect the food security of the most vulnerable populations, and provide predictability for importers and exporters, thereby ensuring that production chains continue to operate sustainably and preventing further job losses and disruptions to supply.

In its response, the EU said that standards applied are based on scientific studies by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and taking into consideration the potential risks for EU consumers posed by these imports.

The EU representative said that all MRL-related processes are notified to members with sufficient time in order to allow food business operators time to prepare for the new requirements that will result from the modification of existing standards.

The EU is the largest common market in the world and the largest importer of fruits and vegetables. In 2018, the total import value of fruits and vegetables from developing countries increased by 38% in five years to 18.2 billion euros, which is even larger than the 3.1 billion euros in imports from developed non-European countries, according to the Netherlands Centre for Promotion of Imports (CBI).