ASTA is working to break down trade barriers and harmonize standards.
An array of standards prevents seeds moving from nation to nation and continent to continent without some kind of oversight. Seed producers and their customers appreciate that these regulations aim to protect crops from pests and disease but, at times, the rules can become restrictive and limit or halt trade altogether. As a result, these barriers disrupt supply chains and seed production, limit farmers’ choices and hinder market growth.
At the moment, the American Seed Trade Association is monitoring several situations around the globe where the movement of seed is—or has the potential to be—limited due to phytosanitary concerns.
Spinach Seed Imports
Near the top of that list is addressing disease concerns that have affected the import of spinach seed from Europe to the United States. The fungal pathogen Phomopsis was first detected in shipments entering the United States in 2011. In the fall of 2012, the U.S. government began restricting spinach seed shipments from European countries such as the Netherlands and Denmark after declaring Phomopsis a quarantine pest. The fungus is not pathogenic to spinach, but can cause damage to other crops, including sunflowers and soybeans.
Ric Dunkle, ASTA’s senior director for seed health and trade, found these developments troubling due to the nature and value of the spinach industry. This short-season crop is grown nearly year-round on the West Coast. With only about 45 days from planting to harvest, growers require a steady supply of seed. The value of the spinach seed market in the United States is estimated to be between $12 and 20 million.
These factors prompted ASTA to take action and help facilitate research efforts. “We’re actually using our own dollars to fund research for treatment options, and we should expect to see results by summertime,” says Dunkle, referring to work being done at Washington State University to find an effective phytosanitary treatment.
Meanwhile, progress has already been made on other fronts to lessen supply disruptions. Dunkle says he’s pleased a protocol has been developed to inspect seed in Europe before it’s shipped, resulting in fewer lot rejections by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
Monitoring Major Markets
Vietnam is one of several countries ASTA is monitoring. Recently, the Southeast Asian nation declared it wanted comprehensive risk assessments completed on all seed and plant material for all species by the year 2014. If the task is not completed by then, import permits will not be issued. Dunkle says ASTA is working with APHIS officials to get the assessments prioritized.
If pest risk analyses can’t be completed in time, some companies, such as HM Clause, will feel the effects on multiple fronts. “Not only will seed sales stop, but seed production of tomato and pepper hybrids will be affected. This will be due to the fact that we cannot ship stock seed to Vietnam for seed production,” says Tom Moore, HM Clause’s West Coast small seed production manager.
Then there’s Brazil. ASTA has been paying close attention since 2010 to ongoing developments concerning some controversial changes to the country’s phytosanitary requirements, referred to as Normative 36. Had those changes been implemented, imports of U.S seed at the commercial level would have been halted, Dunkle says. Brazilian officials agreed to reconsider their plans and wait one year. That deadline has since been extended an additional year. “We worked very hard to provide science-based comments to their proposals. We believe it’s important to meet their needs but not shut down trade,” Dunkle adds.
Moore credits the partnership between ASTA, United States Department of Agriculture plant health officials, the International Seed Federation and Associação Brasileira de Sementes e Mudas, Brazil’s seed association, for acting quickly to arrange meetings with Brazil’s Ministry of Agriculture to voice concerns. As a result, Brazil agreed to delay implementation of one very crucial rule—requiring seed tests instead of field inspections. “We are not out of the woods yet, but I think the industry will be able to adjust to the changes if they are scientifically based,” Moore says.
At the Ready
This type of work—keeping the flow of seed moving smoothly—is very unpredictable, says Dunkle. It is hard to gauge just where and when new trade barriers will arise. However, ASTA is keen on being as well prepared as possible. Members of the organization’s International Executive Committee explore market development in other countries and, as part of that work, assess what issues might impede economic opportunities.
“To me, the IEC is a think tank for international seed issues made up of experienced ASTA staff with seasoned industry members who outline current and future strategies for the industry,” says Moore, who currently serves as the committee’s chair.
“We work to set global and country priorities, develop strategies for ASTA representatives to ISF, and design strategies for USDA Cooperator Programs, including Foreign Market Development, Market Access Program and Emerging Market Programs, plus provide guidance and participate in ASTA’s Priority Country Working Groups. Today our working groups cover Argentina, Brazil, China, India and Mexico,” he says.
As evidenced by the roadblocks cropping up in places like Vietnam and Brazil, ASTA staff’s and committee members’ time is mostly consumed by addressing concerns over outbound products, rather than imports. “U.S. policy regarding seed is that it’s a relatively low risk commodity. They are aware of action of quality management procedures used to produce pure seed,” Dunkle says.
“Not only will seed sales stop, but seed production of tomato and pepper hybrids will be affected. This will be due to the fact that we cannot ship stock seed to Vietnam for seed production.”
Leveling the Playing Field
In addition to specific cases, ASTA staff devotes time to the fundamentals that govern seed trade, such as the development of comprehensive standards. Dunkle was one of 12 committee members who helped draft a regional seed standard, RSPM 36: Phytosanitary Guidelines for the Movement of Seed into a NAPPO Member Country, adopted by the North American Plant Protection Organization in March 2013.
The document states that its objective is to provide guidelines that will prevent the entry and spread of pests associated with seed and facilitate the re-export of seeds between NAPPO members—the United States, Canada and Mexico. It also seeks to promote the use of harmonized phytosanitary import requirements, testing protocols and phytosanitary certification systems for seed.
Now that the standard is in place, ASTA wants to see the same thing done on a larger scale. “We’ve been proactive on the international level to develop an international standard so that all countries can play by the same rules. We formed a coalition with other organizations, so we can demonstrate global desire for this to be done. We’ve been working with the International Plant Protection Commission and Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and have been successful in encouraging them to begin work on an international standard,” says Dunkle.
According to the IPPC, an expert working group will meet this summer in the Netherlands to do just that—develop a draft document on an international standard.
“We worked very hard to provide science-based comments to their proposals. We believe it’s important to meet their needs but not shut down trade.”
Industry officials are also eyeing progress being made on such a standard. Jennifer Rashet, Monsanto’s U.S. seed regulatory affairs manager, says transnational companies like Monsanto are in need of a global standard. When it comes to innovation, Monsanto is intent on helping its researchers develop new plant varieties that meet the needs of many regions and microclimates, which “requires the frequent movement of small quantities of seed between our research stations around the world. An international standard for phytosanitary measures on the movement of seed would provide needed mechanisms to improve the predictability of trade between countries,” says Rashet.
“Providing clear, predictable, science-based phytosanitary requirements to companies will facilitate the export and re-export process to move seed from one country to the next throughout product advancement phases,” she adds. Ultimately, this means Monsanto could deliver enhanced varieties to customers more quickly.
Rashet expects a global standard would require the high quality assurance principles the company already abide by today. “We have a special team of quality experts that study the physiological, horticultural and genetic factors that affect seed quality. We believe that the best way to manage phytosanitary risk is to minimize or prevent the exposure to seed pathogens in the first place,” Rashet explains.
This is accomplished by adhering to good agricultural practices and seed quality management guides such as ASTA’s Guide to Seed Quality Management, among others, as well as using various risk management tools including Good Seed and Plant Practices. Rashet says these methods have been successful and should be embraced by the standard writers.
“An international standard for phytosanitary measures on the movement of seed would provide needed mechanisms to improve the predictability of trade between countries.”
Beyond the Bottom Line
When trade barriers arise, a seed company’s economic losses can be significant. Dunkle says losses are often realized through additional demurrage costs, extra seed testing or treatment and, in some cases, the destruction of product.
These barriers can also impede efforts by farmers, the agribusiness industry and global leaders to address critical issues like food security, especially in developing nations that desire to be self-sufficient in seed production and availability. “Many farmers in these countries do not see the value of high-tech seed and prefer to use farm-saved seed thinking this is insurance against not having needed seed. They fail to recognize that the quality and performance of this seed in everything from germination and vigor to yield and disease resistance is usually drastically inferior to commercially available seed, even though the commercially available seed may be considered an extra cost,” says Dunkle.