The IR-4 project in the United States is seeking to widen the global fresh produce supply chain by ‘sharing’ maximum residue limits for pesticides. Produce Business UK looks at how the concept could benefit this side of the pond by removing barriers to trade
With all the concern over Europe’s stringent new pesticide laws taking centre stage during heated debates on crop protection, Maximum Residue Levels (MRLs – once the only acronym on everyone’s lips), are often now being left out of the discussions altogether. Yet MRLs – the upper legal levels of a concentration for pesticide residues in or on food – remain a crucial and complex element of the global fresh produce trade.
This is largely because MRLs, measured in parts per million (ppm), vary across the globe depending on the country or the continent, which can often cause hiccups for importers and exporters, as consignments of fresh produce can be rejected if their pesticide residues do not comply with the MRLs set by the country of destination.
In Europe, MRLs are synchronised – so fresh produce grown outside of the EU, such as a crop of apples produced in the US, cannot cross the border into Europe unless its MRLs comply with the requirements of European legislation.
Suppliers who are growing fresh produce destined for our shores therefore need to be mindful of European legislation when applying pesticides to their crops. When problems arise, the whole supply chain suffers because buyers have to find alternative ways of filling the produce shelves.
Harmonising MRLs with IR-4
The IR-4 project in the US is seeking to make life easier. IR-4 executive director Jerry Baron reveals that one of the key aims of the programme is to try to harmonise MRLs for fresh produce [or “minor use”] crops across the globe.
Baron, who is based at Rutgers University in New Jersey, the US, explains: “There are major export flows which drive the need for harmonised MRLs. Some 70% of IR-4’s resources therefore go into this objective.”
He says MRLs become more of an issue as international trade grows. “There’s been an increased amount of testing by importing countries,” he points out. “More governments are setting their own MRL standards to show their populace that they are protective.
“The lack of harmony is constraining the use of new plant protection materials, which is a hurdle to international trade. “If, for example, you have a 0.6 [ppm] MRL in South America but ship the product to somewhere that has a MRL of 0.02 it’s a logistical nightmare.”
Global case study on tomatoes
As part of its research, IR-4 conducts global residue studies to help illustrate to governments throughout the world how harmonisation could be achieved if countries work together.
For example, a recent study on tomato crops funded by the US Department of Agriculture’s Technical Assistant for Speciality Crops, compared the pesticide residues of four chemicals on tomato crops from a wide variety of international, geographical locations and environmental zones.
Those who were involved in the trial, says Baron, all used identical spray equipment and test substances were pre-measured. A training video on how to conduct the study was also posted on YouTube and samples were taken at 24 and 72 hours after the pesticide was applied.
The study concluded that the calculated MRLs were similar – a difference of 0.1ppm or less – across all of the climatic zones and continents. The data from this project is now being analysed and a publication is being prepared as part of IR-4’s on-going work.
Where to next?
When it comes to pesticide residues, Baron says it really doesn’t matter where the studies are carried out. “There can be variabilities between [climatic] zones and within zones,” he says.
IR-4 is therefore working on a “global needs” database to help move along the process of establishing harmonised MRLs. “We are always willing to share data when it’s appropriate and allow other countries to use it to help them share their MRLs,” Baron notes.
IR-4, whose work also includes developing data to support bio-pesticide registrations, is continuing to conduct global studies. Later this year, it is also taking part in the first global minor use priority setting workshop, on September 20-22 (2015), in Chicago, the US.
“People will go out there [to Chicago] and identify data needs that are needed across the world,” Baron says. “[They will] identify priorities and try to find a global solution to that problem.”
Ultimately, Baron believes IR-4 is there to help ensure a consistent supply of affordable and safe fruits and vegetables for society. Clearly, the harmonisation of MRLs is an ambitious goal – but the fact that countries are already sharing data and working together shows there is a definite opportunity to join forces to improve the international fresh produce trade.