UNFSS in Expert Hearing on international food standards – Berlin, Germany

Berlin urban garden

Frank Grothaus of the UNFSS support group attended this meeting, organized by the Joint Conference Church and Development (GKKE) – a joint Protestant-Catholic advocacy group in the area of development policy – on June 2nd, 2014 in Berlin, Germany. The objective of the expert hearing was to discuss the challenges and opportunities of international food standards – in particular private food standards – in the context of market participation of smallholder farmers, poverty eradication, food security and rural development from a wide range of perspectives. Apart from the UNFSS, participants included representatives from the government of Uganda/Uganda National Bureau of Standards (UNBS), the German Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL), standard setting organizations (GlobalGAP, Fairtrade International), Environmental Alert Uganda, the German food industry association, and academe.

To kick off the meeting, a GKKE discussion paper was presented highlighting the need for international food standards that are fairer, more inclusive and more sustainable in terms of their developmental contribution as well as the challenges arising for policy, economy and society towards achieving this end. The paper calls into question the primary focus on integration into export markets as a strategy in rural development programmes, which may force a large number of smallholder farmers in less developed countries who cannot cope with private standard certification, audit and documentation requirements to fall back on informal markets. This trend of an increasing divide between food markets of the rich, supplied by standard-compliant production, and those of the poor threatens to hinder the improvement of food safety and food security in developing countries. Thus, global supply chains should be designed in a way that is pro-poor, the uncontrolled expansion and multiplicity of private standard schemes should be addressed, and these standards be put into the context of a coherent development policy.

Much of the discussion that followed centred on the apparent area of tension between export orientation – associated with concentration on specific cash crops as well as channelling of investment into these sectors – and broad-based sustainable development, i.e. how to develop private standard schemes, which are export-oriented by design, in a way that is inclusive, without watering down standards criteria to an extent that diminishes their impact and without compromising food security and the development of local markets. In this context, concern was voiced that the division of producers into those who enter international value chains and are supported by multinational companies and those that remain outside these chains could not only create one-sided dependencies but also put local farm structures and livelihoods at risk. A similar problem relates to the disproportionate distribution of benefits arising from new market opportunities between producers in countries with very different capacities in physical infrastructure and institutions.

On the potential role of governments in the area of private food standards, views ranged from the opinion that developing country governments should play a stronger role, inter alia by proactively engaging in strategic policy development, by providing education, training and infrastructure to support small-scale producers to comply with standards, that they should engage in the effective usage of international standards in the country-specific context, their interpretation and implementation, to the view that governments should have a rather observing and moderating role. Furthermore, measures aimed at enhanced harmonisation and equivalence between standard schemes with overlapping criteria were deemed important.

Overall, private standards were acknowledged as potentially valuable instruments to prepare farmers in developing countries for entering international food markets and related supply chains and contribute to the achievement of development goals, if certain preconditions were fulfilled: Embedding of standards into a development framework and national development strategies; enhanced participation of developing countries in international standard-setting processes and their further development; better adaptation of standards and production process requirements to local contexts and market conditions reflecting the perspective and needs of small-scale producers; better monitoring of the impacts of private standards on the participation of developing countries in international trade; addressing imbalances in power-structures within supply chains and associated price pressure; in addition to appropriate financial and technical support for smallholder farmers.

In light of the complexity of the issues at hand, it is hoped that this meeting serves as a starting point for a longer-term exchange between private sector, government, development cooperation and NGOs on the complex topic of international food standards and related private sustainability standards and their impacts on smallholder farmers in developing countries.

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The United Nations Forum on Sustainability Standards (UNFSS) is a joint initiative of 5 UN Agencies (FAO, ITC, UNCTAD, UN Environment and UNIDO) that seeks to address these challenges. It is a demand-driven forum for intergovernmental actors to communicate among each other and engage with key target groups (producers, traders, consumers, standard-setters, certification-bodies, trade diplomats, relevant NGOs and researchers) to address their information needs and influence concerned stakeholders. It aims to provide impartial information, analysis, and discussions on VSS and their potential contribution to facilitate market access, strengthen public goods and achieve Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Most importantly, the UNFSS focuses on potential trade or development obstacles VSS may create, with particular emphasis on their impact on SMEs and less developed countries.

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