Published on The Trade Post

Avoiding the “Harm” in Harmonized Standards for Food Staples in Africa

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Preparing vegetables taken from garden, Mongu, Zambia. Source - Felix Clay/DuckrabbitAfrica’s imports of staple foods could more than triple in the next 15 years. Without an increase in crop yields and an improvement in the trade of surplus food from areas with good growing conditions to deficit zones, importing sufficient amounts of staple food could cost the continent upwards of US$150 billion per year by 2030.

Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be this way. As the World Bank showed in its 2012 report, Africa Can Help Feed Africa, the continent could easily deliver improved food security to its citizens through increased regional trade.

Often the nearest source of inputs or best outlet for farm products is a across a border, yet high costs and unpredictable rules make trade difficult and discourage investments by small farmers in raising productivity and large investments by private companies in input supply and food marketing.

Facilitating regional trade is therefore more important than ever for reducing poverty and meeting Africa’s growing demand for staple foods.

Thus far, one of the main ways African governments have sought to improve trade conditions in agriculture has been to adopt harmonized regional standards. The East African Community (EAC) has been particularly active in this regard and currently has over 50 sets of harmonized standards for staple crops alone. These standards are technically mandatory at the domestic, regional, and international levels.

The EAC is also finalizing mandatory standards for seed certification covering five major food crops. The Southern African Development Community (SADC), Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), and others are similarly involved in various stages of building harmonized systems for regional seed trade and other agriculture inputs.

Despite the popularity of harmonization and potential to improve market access, a growing body of evidence from Africa and other parts of the developing world suggests that harmonization may not be the least disruptive or most effective way to promote trade, improve quality, or minimize sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) risk.

Lack of standards is not good for trade, but wrong standards and poor standardization policies may be worse. Of most concern is when harmonization becomes an end in itself and when inappropriate standards disconnect poor farmers from poor consumers in regional and even domestic markets.  

In the first place, harmonized standards can lead to additional trade costs when other cheaper and less disruptive ways are available to avoid health and safety risks. Countries adopting harmonized standards sometimes do not even have the lab facilities or inspection capacity needed to meet their own mandatory requirements. As a result, many countries refuse to recognize each other’s standards certificates and charges for pre-shipment inspections, border inspections, and post-arrival inspections are still common.

The SPS Agreement of the World Trade Organization (WTO) encourages, but does not require, countries to harmonize their SPS measures with established international standards. Regional standards in Africa, however, sometimes go far beyond the international ones in setting very demanding requirements that have little or no connection with actual SPS risks or buyer needs. Voluntary quality standards have sometimes also gotten mixed up with scientifically justified health requirements.

A good example of issues that can arise with mandatory harmonized standards is the case of the EAC standard for maize grain. This standard goes much further than the international CODEX Standard in setting tight quality parameters, providing for maximum limits for three categories of mycotoxin, moisture, and filth that apply to all maize grades together with specific limits on broken, pest damaged, shriveled, discolored, and rotten grains, and total grain defect for three grades of maize. Grain that does not conform to the regional requirements or exceeds the limits for Grade 3 maize is described as unfit for human consumption and is technically illegal to buy or sell anywhere in the EAC except for animal feed.

Mycotoxins are indeed a very serious public health risk. Other factors such as grain size and color, however, mainly relate to crop value and milling outturn and do not (by themselves) make maize unfit for human consumption. According to standards authorities in Kenya, a high share of discolored and shriveled grains can sometimes be an indicator of mycotoxin and these markers are included for extra protection. To the extent that maize importers and other traders are already providing laboratory test results for three kinds of mycotoxin, however, these additional requirements are at best redundant and at worst a trade barrier.

Some have also questioned the scientific basis for the EAC maize standard. Unlike eastern Africa where there are two rainy seasons per year, phytosanitary officers and large grain traders in southern Africa with potential to export to the EAC say aflatoxin in maize is almost unheard of due to their being just one rainy season. Small farmers similarly point out that sun drying naturally results in a lot of discolored grain and say that undersize kernels are common with some seed types and when little or no fertilizer is used or when fertilizer is used late.

Efforts to harmonize standards for seed and fertilizer trade have also become an important part of regional trade facilitation. Work on harmonized standards for seed began in southern Africa in the late 1980s, in eastern and central Africa in the 1990s, and in West Africa in the early 2000s. In the mid-2000s, ECOWAS began work on harmonized standards for fertilizer. After many years of dialogue, most of the laws and operating rules for harmonized input trade are at last falling into place.

Still, it is likely to be many years before any of these systems are operational. Similar to food staples, Africa’s regional rules for inputs are based on advanced international standards. These systems are highly effective as quality control instruments, but require specialist skills, advanced laboratory equipment, and other resources to implement that are generally lacking in Africa and will take years if not decades to develop.

Therefore, rather than rely so intensively on harmonization, governments and donors need to be pragmatic in looking for simple improvements that can have meaningful impact now. Very often, the number of standards harmonized is counted as a direct measure of success without looking at the impact on trade opportunities, costs, or competitiveness.

Use of voluntary standards for matters that do not relate to genuine SPS or other safety risk, greater tailoring of standards to match local capacities, and efforts to promote mutual recognition and equivalency agreements that minimize the need for duplicate inspections could all be useful steps in the right direction. Risk based approaches that minimize the need for mandatory border inspections together with increased surveillance of domestic markets could also help improve trade conditions and provide increased SPS and consumer protection.


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