Establishment of standards for international agricultural trade: Promoting Africa’s participation

9 December 2011

The rapid reduction in tariffs experienced in the last half decade is increasingly being replaced by the use of non-tariff measures by most developed countries; ostensibly to protect consumers and producers from imported animal and plant products and materials that may be contaminated. Thus, non-tariff barriers such as Sanitary and Phyto-Sanitary (SPS) measures are critical issues along various agricultural value chains for African smallholder farmers and agro-processors. Amidst its provision of an effective architecture for promoting global free trade, food safety and quality issues continue to assume an increasingly crucial dimension in African smallholder farmers' participation in regional and global markets. This article offers strategic insights into workable and desirable policy options for strengthening Africa's capacities to participate in the setting of standards and technical regulations for regional and international trade.

Given that African economies depend largely on agriculture and that smallholder producers are the driving force behind agricultural production, there is an increasing recognition of the importance to address agricultural policy and trade-related constraints that prevent smallholder agricultural producers and traders from accessing high value regional and global markets.

In this regard, standards and technical regulations have attracted increasing attention in ongoing regional and global trade policy dialogue as tariff and quota issues seem to assume a declining dimension.[1] In other words, with the reduction in the applicability of tariff barriers, the adoption rate of standards as a trade restrictive strategy has increased significantly. This growing emphasis on non-tariff barriers, in the face of increased globalisation and rapid agricultural trade liberalisation, has attracted considerable public debate on the impact of standards on regional and international market access for agricultural commodities in Africa. In addition to hindering access to markets for agricultural commodities produced by smallholder farmers in Africa, standards also raise the cost of agricultural exports, thus, serving as disincentives to smallholder farmers.

Opportunities for greater compliance and harmonization

Agreements and dialogue on SPS measures and other related commercial regulations encourage African countries to participate in trade at all levels.[2] They provide an international framework for exchange among and between African countries and the rest of the world, irrespective of each country's political agenda, economic strength or technological capacity. They also reduce uncertainty about the conditions for selling to a specific market, thus, providing a variety of market destination options. Without such agreements, African countries will be at a disadvantage when challenging trade protectionist policies.

In fact, SPS measures, which apply to domestically, sub-regionally, and regionally produced/traded agricultural products, take many forms, such as requiring products to come from a disease-free area, inspection of products, specific treatment or processing of products, or permitted use of only certain additives in food products. Ultimately, the measures help to ensure that agricultural commodities are safe for consumers, and prevent the spread of pest or diseases among animals and plants.

Further, as an increasing number of African countries strive to meet these technical regulations, opportunities exist along the ongoing harmonization of SPS measures within regional economic blocs in Africa. Some of the regional economic communities (RECs) which provide these opportunities include notably the Economic community of Central African States (ECCA), Union du Maghreb Arabe (UMA), the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), the East African Community (EAC), the Community of Sahel-Saharan States (CENSAD), the Economic Community Of West African States (ECOWAS), the Common Market of Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), and the Southern African Development Community (SADC). These opportunities grow as more African countries and RECs effectively participate in international standard setting. Further, some of these RECs provide best practices that could be shared, up-scaled and out-scaled in Africa.

Identification of challenges

At the same time, being an increasingly strategic trade issue, mandatory standards and technical regulations have continued to attract considerable attention from African governments because they pose significant challenges to all smallholder farmers and agro-processors. In making frantic efforts to access regional and international markets for agricultural commodities, African smallholder farmers are confronted with the arduous hurdles arising from SPS and food-safety issues such as the setting of standards; the costs of technical compliance; the cost of verification; and transitional arrangements.

While recognizing that some progress has been recorded at national and regional levels, Africa's participation in standards setting has remained limited for many reasons. First Africa does not have a certified and well established database for its effective participation in standards setting process. Secondly, most African countries are not well represented and they are inadequately prepared before participating in meetings on standards settings, all the more since there is no forum where African experts can meet to discuss before meetings. There is moreover a low awareness of standard setting process across all levels in Africa, leading to inadequate ownership and recognition of standards by relevant stakeholders such as farmers and private sector. Scientific data are furthermore often inadequate to support an effective participation in international standards setting process. Available regulatory agencies in charge of standards and quality are similarly not adequately linked and human resources and infrastructure are often lacking to carry out risk analysis of agreeing with certain SPS measures. Finally, there is clearly a shortage of funding to support preparatory meetings for drafting and reviewing standards and for expert participation in SPS standards setting dialogues.

Conclusions and policy recommendations

SPS measures are essential for promoting access to regional and international markets for agricultural commodities in Africa. Some of the benefits accruable to Africa if it adequately meets SPS measures include: Enhanced confidence among regional trading partners and consumers; enhanced access to regional and international markets for agricultural commodities; improved cooperation and integration among African countries and sub-regions; improved food and feed safety, and animal / plant health; and speedy achievement of the overall objective of 6% agricultural growth as enshrined in the CAADP framework.[3] Meeting SPS measures along agricultural value chain in Africa is at the heart of the second Pillar of CAADP which is referred to as ‘improving rural infrastructure and trade-related capacities for improved market access. [4] Strategic policy recommendations in order to enhance Africa's participation in standards setting fora include:

1.      The establishment of online databases and mailing lists of SPS experts at national and regional levels to provide a pool of expert resources for standard-setting processes.

2.       Develop, support or strengthen regional policies that encourage linkages with national research institutions and universities. This should collaborate with National Agricultural Research Systems (NARS) in order to empower regulatory institutions to commission standards setting researches and projects.

3.      Establishment of SPS standards-setting committees in order to coordinate national and regional positions at international standards setting fora.

4.      Governments at all levels should allocate funds to the accreditation of SPS laboratories; create incentives for private sector participation in funding initiatives; promote public-private partnerships including global partnerships in strengthening the capacities of laboratories; strengthening existing laboratories and identify centres of excellence for supporting accreditation activities. National governments in collaboration with Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA) (see box 1)  should formalize funding for relevant SPS research for development along agricultural value chains in Africa.

5.      Strengthen capacities for risk analysis as a core component of the strategies for implementation of CAADP country and regional compacts implementation processes.

6.      There is a dire need for the establishment of a database of trade-related SPS expert among member countries. This will provide a pool of experts on standards setting or other related issues. Further, member countries need to enact or review existing SPS policies in order to align it with international agreements.

7.      Government should allocate resources to the provision of creating awareness tools among stakeholders. Such tools include policy briefs, media, radio, leaflets, posters, et cetera. Along this recommendation is the need for the establishment, operationalization and promotion of SPS enquiry points or nodes at community levels.
Authors: Dr. Gbadebo Odularu is FARA’s regional policies and markets analyst, FARA, Accra, Ghana. Dr. Emmanuel Tambi is the Director of Advocacy and Policy, FARA, Accra, Ghana.


1 Standards and certification issues involve food safety standards, fair trade standards, organic standards, labour standards, and several kinds of environmental standards and labels.

2 SPS measures must be transparent, non-discriminatory, and scientifically justified by harmonizing sanitary or phytosanitary measures with internationally agreed standards, guidelines or recommendations from the Codex Alimentarius Commission (CODEX), the International Office of Epizootics (OIE), and the International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC), or a country may undertake an individual and independent risk assessment. An importing country cannot impose different requirements on imports than on domestically produced goods (national treatment), nor can it favour imports from certain countries (most favoured nation). Members must adopt other approaches that will ensure safety insofar as the exporting member objectively demonstrates that its measures achieve the importing member's required level of sanitary or phytosanitary measures if they have a significant effect on trade. However, under SPS Agreement, DCs are obliged to provide technical assistance to Africa in order to help them comply with SPS measures.

3 Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) is a pan-African vehicle that translates the NEPAD Planning and Coordinating Agency (NPCA)'s vision into an operational framework to guide agriculture-led development. CAADP's overall goal is to improve livelihoods, food security and environmental resilience in Africa's largely agrarian economies.

4 Four priority areas of the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) are known as Pillars: Extending the area under sustainable land management and reliable water control systems (Pillar I); Improving rural infrastructure and trade-related capacities for improved market access (Pillar II); Increasing food supply and reducing hunger (Pillar III); and Agricultural research, technology dissemination and adoption (Pillar IV).

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