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International food trade

"Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are. "
- Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826)

The words of the Frenchman Savarin are not as appropriate in today's world when pasta can be found in Brazil, pita bread graces the shelves of German supermarkets, fresh Norwegian salmon is available in Saudi Arabia and Canadian wheat grows in China.

These are all signs of the times, signs that food has gone international. Even dictionary editors can testify to that. One English language collection had 800 more food words in its 1989 edition than in the one published 21 years earlier. Added were words such as tofu, chapati, sushi and crepe.

These signs of changing cuisines are confirmed by the fact that international food trade reached US$200000 million in 1989 and continues to grow.

More and more food is moving across borders for a combination of social, economic and technological reasons. Transportation has improved greatly, and better ways, such as freezing, have been found to preserve foods. In the economic boom after the Second World War, more people had more money and through travel they found out about foods eaten in other parts of the world. Mass migrations of people between countries and continents also contributed to the changes in eating habits.

On top of all this, many developing nations were ready to sell the foods they were producing to obtain funds to continue building up their countries.

The growth rates in exports and imports were phenomenal for some individual countries. For example, Chile exported 36 times more food in 1990 than in 1970. Malaysia reported a 13-fold increase in exports, and Thailand did 1178 percent more food export business in 1990 than in 1970. And all of these figures are adjusted for inflation.

On the import side, from 1970 to 1990, the Republic of Korea and its neighbour Japan both had more than eightfold inflation-adjusted increases in food imports. The value of Japan's imports topped US$17000 million in 1990. On the other side of the world, Spain's imports increased to nearly US$5000 million in 1990, a 947 percent gain from 20 years earlier. France imported 717 percent more over the same period.

And yet the figures could have been greater. Non-tariff trade barriers and failure to "harmonize" or adopt accepted food standards have resulted in countless food shipments being rejected by importing countries. For example, in the late 1980s, one country turned back some 18000 food shipments valued at US$1100 million in a single year. Had exporters been more aware of the country's requirements or had Codex procedures and standards been followed, much of that food would have reached the intended consumers.

Such rejections and detentions are costly. In some cases, food may be reconditioned or relabelled and thus salvaged, although in the case of perishable food this is not always possible. But often the food is rejected outright, and the exporter looks for a nearby buyer, which could mean that the unacceptable food is "dumped" on an unsuspecting third nation.

Imports are sometimes turned down because they contain certain chemicals that exceed maximum residue levels (MRLs), or what may be considered safe residue levels. Often that can be avoided by merely following Codex MRL standards.

Trends in world food and animal exports 1970-1990

All charts adjusted for inflation; 1979-1981 average = 100

Trends in food and animal exports by developing countries 1970-1990

Take bananas as an example. They are grown in tropical areas and shipped to countries in temperate regions, which usually have no experience with chemicals used in banana growing. There is no need for the importing country to test and evaluate a pesticide used on bananas if Codex has already done it. Without the Codex standard, bananas containing any amount of the unfamiliar pesticide might be turned away, safe as they may be.

Non-tariff barriers are another matter. They may be disguised as health or safety measures, but their purpose is to protect farm products of the importing country, or they may be a response to consumer misconceptions about the dangers of chemical products used to promote plant or animal growth.

Such examples point to the need for harmonization of food standards. Harmonization, a word long used in international food trade, is shorthand for getting the countries of the world to agree on food codes. Harmonization aims at agreement on:

• testing and inspection procedures,
• acceptance of test data,
• rules concerning food.

Complete harmonization of food standards may never be fully realized because there are too many parochial or local reasons for countries to adhere to a particular standard and because scientists and societies sometimes reach different conclusions for different reasons. But pressures are building because non-tariff barriers are constraining world trade.

To further harmonization, Codex Alimentarius stands ready with scientifically and technically based standards that represent a consensus of food and trade experts from around the world. They are standards that international trade negotiators are using more and more for settling disputes.

Crates of oranges being loaded in Morocco for shipping to Europe

Trends in food and animal imports Chile 1970-1990

Trends in food and animal imports France 1970-1990

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