The clock is ticking on whether Indian officials will reverse an edict requiring Canadian pulse shipments to be fumigated at the port of origin rather than at their destination.
Federal Agriculture Minister Lawrence MacAulay and a delegation from Pulse Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency were in India at the beginning of March to push for a quick resolution to this policy shift. But with the March 31 deadline looming, officials were still uncertain at press time what this will mean for the future of the pulse trade with India.
“The window is closed for container shipments to India to arrive before the current policy expires at the end of March,” Pulse Canada CEO Gordon Bacon said in an interview Feb. 28.
“Our biggest market in the world has signalled it will be shifting its policy, and by simple fact of climate alone, we cannot meet that requirement.
“The state of urgency is high.”
Since 2004, India’s import policy for pulse crops requires all pulse shipments to be fumigated with methyl bromide in the country of origin. Some countries — including Canada and the United States — were granted a derogation, or exemption, from this policy in part because methyl bromide cannot be used in cold weather. This exemption was extended every six months, but in September, Indian officials “indicated they would not be granting any more exemptions,” said Bacon.
“That’s problematic. Our climate doesn’t change with India’s change in policy.”
In December, Canadian officials submitted a “data package” that lays out “the risk that exports of pulses from Canada to India presents.” The package compared the pests of concern for India to the presence of those pests in Canada, and the federal regulations surrounding pest control. Bacon expects that Indian officials could respond to that report as early as March 10.
“We can’t meet the fumigation requirements, in part because of temperature, but more importantly, it is our belief, based on a science-based risk assessment, that we do not have the pests that are of concern to India,” said Bacon.
“A combination of regulations and climate give us a pretty clean environment. If India accepts the risk assessment that Canada has presented, there is no need for fumigation at destination or at origin, because there are no pests present that fumigation will be needed to control.”
But that’s unlikely to happen, he added. More likely, India will either accept that pest risk can be managed through means other than fumigation; grant another extension of six months “to give them more time to look at it”; or continue to insist “that fumigation is required from all origins and must be done in the country of origin.”
“Then we have a problem in Canada because we cannot fumigate here because of cold weather, and we’ll have to look at whether one of our options will be to fumigate in a third country, such as Singapore,” said Bacon.
That would have a ripple effect on Canada’s entire pulse industry, including producers.
“For many years, India has been our biggest customer. India is taking over one-third of our total crop. If we lose access to one-third of our market, we’ll have to see how the marketplace reshuffles,” said Bacon, adding Canada could see greater competition from other countries and reduced prices at home, which could slow pulse production.
“You can’t just lose one-third of your pea and lentil market and not expect that it will not have an impact on price. And with that price signal, Canadian growers may not view prices of pulses as enough incentive to continue to grow them at the level that they were.”
The good news is that, right now, Canada supplies nearly 50 per cent of India’s total pulse imports (worth $1.5 billion for Canadian growers) and, in the short term, there’s no alternative seller able to supply that volume.
“There’s a lot of market shift that will need to occur depending on what India’s policy going forward becomes, and it will have an impact on global pulse production,” said Bacon.
“India is the biggest pulse producer in the world, but it’s also the biggest pulse importer. When India has a policy shift, the global pulse industry sits up and takes notice.”
Unscientific trade barriers
How this will play out was unknown at press time, but it points to a larger problem of unscientific trade barriers with key trading partners, said Bacon.
“It doesn’t matter whether it’s canola shipments to China or pea shipments to India, we have to be prepared to answer questions from importers about the quality and the cleanliness of our products, and the potential risk of our products in different environments,” said Bacon.
That has always been a concern, he said, but “it’s becoming a greater concern” as consumers have begun to delve deeper into where their food comes from.
“Globally, people have to eat 365 days a year, so we need to find that mix of technical, political, and commercial viability so that we are creating an environment where food trade can occur in a predictable manner and that we’re not having government policies inordinately distort trade flow,” he said.
“There’s no such thing as zero risk, so we have to talk about the level of risk — not only the risk to the environment, but also the risk to price volatility and access to food items.
“We have to find the appropriate level of risk mitigation and acceptance that there is no such thing as zero risk.”
But Canada is well positioned to meet that challenge, he added, and this trade dispute with India may be the first real test of that.
“The policy needs to be commensurate with the potential for risk. Given that we have climatic differences and regulatory differences, there are different degrees of risk,” said Bacon.
“Our science says that we do not pose a risk to India, so I think there’s reason to be confident that a science-based approach to risk assessment should put Canada in a very good position as a global supplier to meet India’s pulse demands.”