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202206 Fresh Quarterly Issue 17 02 Managing Market Access
Issue SeventeenJune 2022

Managing market access

Ensuring that South African growers can send their fruit to international markets is a full-time job. By Anna Mouton.

Lindi Benić is the joint market-access manager for Hortgro and SATI — the South African Table Grape Industry. Market access involves far more than gaining access to new markets. “People often forget about everything that’s being done to keep them in existing markets,” comments Benić.

Our trading partners can — and do — change their requirements. “We were able to export to the European Union without a pest risk assessment for years, then the phytosanitary requirements changed, which directly impacted our ability to export,” says Benić.

“We know what the key markets are, so we monitor the World Trade Organization notifications and the European Union standing-committee-meeting agendas and other critical networking points,” says Benić. This not only keeps her abreast of regulatory changes but also alerts her to potential future developments, allowing the industry the opportunity to respond proactively.

She has noticed that change has become more rapid, with some European Union committees meeting more frequently. “It tells me that they want to make decisions faster.”

Experts in phytosanitary risk

The international movement of plants and plant products — such as fruit — carries the risk of spreading pests and diseases. When trying to access a new market, South Africa has to compile a phytosanitary information package — PIP for short — that identifies and addresses any concerns the importing country may have about pest and disease risks.

“Many years ago, we invested in developing a phytosanitary database, which contains the information we need to make inputs for pest risk assessments,” says Benić. “We can draft or update the phytosanitary information packages per fruit type, and provide those to DALRRD — the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development. We can also draft the GAPs — good agricultural practices — for the key phytosanitary pests.”

Negotiations around phytosanitary risks are highly technical, which is why Benić draws on a team of experts. They are Drs Shelley Johnson and Marelize de Villiers, both specialists in phytosanitary entomology and market access, and Dr Julia Meitz-Hopkins, a specialist in phytosanitary pathology.

Together, the team drafts PIPs for new market-access applications, GAPs for key phytosanitary pests and diseases, and provides inputs on pest risk assessments. In doing this, the industry lends technical support to DALRRD, which acts as the National Plant Protection Organisation.

“We don’t only provide inputs on export-related issues, we also provide inputs on import-related issues, specifically those that pose a phytosanitary risk to the industry,” says Beni?. International trade is a two-way street, and other countries are continually seeking to access our local markets — this makes safeguarding the South African fruit industry against the introduction of pests and diseases an ongoing process.

“We have a very good working relationship with DALRRD,” comments Benić. She notes that DALRRD always expresses appreciation for the contributions made by the market-access team.

A close watch on chemicals

In addition to phytosanitary requirements, fruit have to comply with food safety standards. These mostly come down to maximum residue limits — MRLs — for chemicals used during the pre-and post-harvest production and handling of fruit. Beni? points out that, over and above official MRLs set by countries, retailers are driving an increasing number of private standards.

“We maintain MRL information on our Hortgro website, which we update at least twice per year,” says Benić. An MRL-work-group meeting is held annually to highlight important changes, as well as to give an overview of trends that could have an impact on the South African industry. Attendees represent industry stakeholders including producers, exporters, and crop-protection advisers. Both DALRRD and PPECB — The Perishable Products Export Control Board — are invited.

Following the MRL-work-group meeting and engagement with the agro-chemical industry, the updated MRL information is added to the Hortgro website, and key amendments are summarised in a FreshNotes, usually in July. A second update follows in October, and, if necessary, a third in December.

Changes in MRLs are not the only challenge facing the industry. Increasingly, plant-protection products are being lost entirely when trading partners decide to ban their use. This is another reason why Benić keeps a close eye on the activities of the relevant EU standing committee. “I check what’s on the agendas, and I watch out for key products that we are concerned about, like mancozeb.”

The information that Benić gathers is also used by the Crop Protection Advisory Group, established by Hortgro. This group of experts deals with issues relating to changes in market requirements, advises on research needed to establish MRLs, and assists with motivating the registration of specific products under Act 36 of 1947.

The proactive approach

Market access is a moving target, and Benić is continually scanning in the background to identify risks that arise when different markets change their requirements. In practice, this means that managing market access includes a component of technology transfer, training, and research.

For example, relevant projects funded by Hortgro include work on cold sterilisation of pome and stone fruit for Oriental fruit fly, cold sterilisation of stone fruit for false codling moth, and ethyl-formate fumigation for grain chinch bug and other phytosanitary pests. Hortgro has also been investigating alternative pest control agents, such as entomopathogenic nematodes and fungi, and alternative ways to ensure market access, such as fumigation, cold sterilisation, and irradiation of fruit.

There can be little doubt that accessing new and maintaining existing markets will become more challenging. Consumers are increasingly demanding residue-free products, leading to the imposition of more stringent MRLs by governments and retailers. Climate change is elevating the risk of the spread of pests and diseases.

In the face of these realities, the future of the South African deciduous-fruit industry depends on proactively managing market access.

“Overall, the actions that are required are an awareness of international requirements, trade barriers, and the protocols that influence sustained market access,” summarises Benić. “It’s the technical stuff — if you’re not there technically, market access is not going to happen.”

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