Saturday, August 06, 2005

Looking the other way

A fascinating article in reports how attempts are being made to restore traditional but "neglected" crops to third world farming, as a way of improving nutrition and food security

Success in some instances depends on farmers also finding an export market for these crops, as replanting them often means that more recent export crops are not grown. But here, the report informs us, the EU is being less than helpful.

Take yacon (Smallanthus sonchifolius), it says. This is a succulent root from Peru that was once eaten by farmers to quench their thirst. But twenty years ago, yacon was not included in Peru's crop statistics and was absent from its supermarket shelves.

Then, in the 1980s Japanese scientists found the roots were high in a low-calorie sugar called oligofructose, which could be used in an energising drink, while the leaves contained a compound that lowered blood sugar and could be useful for diabetics. As news of the findings spread in the late 1990s, demand increased. Today, yacon is available in Peruvian supermarkets.

Needless to say though. yacon cannot be sold in Europe. The EU's Novel Foods Regulation states that foods not present in the EU before 1997 must be proved to be free of allergenic, toxic and other hazards before they can be sold. Yacon farmers simply do not have the resources to supply exhaustive data.

Michael Hermann of the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI) says that pioneering small companies in developing countries are losing out, as a result of this. He accepts that those promoting exotic foods must increasingly accommodate legitimate food safety concerns and generate data needed for their acceptance in target markets but, he adds, the high burden of proof has discouraged investment in supply chains and in market development.

In a powerful discussion paper written last year, he makes the case that the stringent food safety assessments required by the EU Novel Food Regulation (258/97/EC) places an unreasonably high burden of proof on those bringing traditional food products from the South to the EU market.

The regulation, he writes, has emerged as a non-tariff barrier for trade in food items that are often derived from under-utilized crops and are viewed as “exotic” from the EU perspective.

This is yet another example of health and safety becoming the new protectionalism yet the one thing you can be sure of is that the EU will not be hurrying to amend its own law. Despite the “bleeding heart” concern for third world development, such as from the likes of Margot Walström, you can guarantee that, when practical help is needed, this baleful organisation will be looking the other way.

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