Italian buyers have cut back on Canadian durum imports, blaming fear of contamination from the herbicide glyphosate. What does Canada need to do to get back into Italy’s durum market?
Italy has historically imported most of its durum from Canada.
However, after trace amounts of glyphosate was found in Canadian durum, Barilla, an Italian food company, cut back their imports by 35%. Overall, Canadian durum exports to Italy have died off (see chart).
The fear over glyphosate is largely unfounded since trace amounts have no associated health risks. 98% of the contaminated wheat was below the Maximum Residue Limits (MRLs).
The real reason behind the change has been Italian farmer organizations who are using this discovery to help curb durum imports, even though domestic production cannot meet domestic demand.
Even though the MRL is 5ppm, a limit that is perfectly in keeping with health concerns, Italy is refusing to import shipments with more than 10 parts per billion! They are worried about the carcinogenic effects reported in the IARC study, which has been disputed by many.
To be quite frank, it will be hard for Canadian durum to meet the limits demanded by Italian buyers.
As we previously covered in February, this is just a continuation of the wheat trade conflict between Canada and Italy, after Italy came out with the “Made in Italy” label. This and the MRL on durum imports both discriminate against Canadian durum in Italian markets.
In order to get back into the Italian durum market, Canadian farmers could potentially try to find alternatives to glyphosate, and meet Italian import limits. However, this will need to be driven by grain companies who are exporting the product to Italy.
On the the question of the “Made in Italy” label, Canada might have a case to take it to the World Trade Organization. There, the Italian policies might be viewed as discriminatory and protectionist, which will prove favorable for Canadian durum.
However, no one in Canada has really pushed to make that happen…yet.
Pasta spats: Canadian wheat exports to Italy slump
The world’s largest pasta maker says it has had to cutback Canadian imports of durum wheat – a key ingredient in pasta – because of ongoing consumer concerns about the use of a popular weed killer.
Barilla’s purchasing director Emilio Ferrari told grain groups in Toronto last week the company has cut back their Canadian wheat imports by 35 per cent, despite the fact Canadian durum wheat is of exceptional quality. No contracts for Canadian durum are being signed right now, he said.
The reason is that some Italian consumers are fearful Canadian wheat has been “poisoned” because it tested positive for traces of the popular and widely-used herbicide glyphosate, he said – a fear Italian farmers have capitalized on in an attempt to dissuade foreign imports, even though glyphosate poses no risk to human health if residues are within accepted limits. Canada is one of Italy’s biggest suppliers of durum wheat.
“Italian farmers took the opportunity to blame imported wheat,” he said. This despite the fact Italy cannot produce enough durum wheat to meet demand. “In Italy we need to import durum wheat for quantity and quality reasons,” Ferrari said, explaining that domestic production simply can’t supply the amount required. Fifty per cent of the pasta produced by Barilla is exported.
“They [the farmers] tried to do this way, I think it is something like a suicide to say pasta is poisoned with glyphosate because pasta producers want to buy most of the Italian crop – but anyway this is the approach we have now,” Ferrari said, adding it is “very difficult to change the public opinion” even if it is not science-based.
Glyphosate, a commonly used herbicide, does not pose a risk to human health if the residues are within regulated limits known as Maximum Residue Limits (MRLs). A recent study by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency found more than 98 per cent of foods that tested positive for glyphosate were within the acceptable limit. Health Canada’s current MRL limit for glyphosate residues in wheat is five parts per million.
The study was reviewed by Health Canada. No human health concerns were identified.
However, glyphosate has come under intense public scrutiny in Europe, with Italy banning the use of the chemical as a pre-harvest treatment in 2016. “We never use it but they banned the usage, because we don’t need it,” Ferrari said. He told attendees at the Canadian Global Crops Symposium his company is currently unwilling to accept shipments with glyphosate tracings above 10 parts per billion.
Concerns about glyphosate will continue to be an issue, he said – urging Canadian producers to find an alternative. However, Canadian producers argue the current limits set by Italy are simply too low to meet because glyphosate is commonly used within acceptable limits and traces of the herbicide are found throughout this country’s bulk handling grain system. The majority of Canadian durum wheat is not treated with glyphosate pre-harvest.
Italy’s decision followed a review of the herbicide by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer’s (IARC) in 2015 that listed the herbicide as a Group 2a carcinogen, meaning it probably causes cancer in people.
However, the IARC’s finding has been heavily disputed by international scientists and triggered several multi-million dollar lawsuits. A Reuters investigation later found the IARC’s report had been heavily edited from its draft form, with findings and evidence that were at odds with its final conclusion deleted and/or heavily edited.
Canada and Italy have been embattled in a simmering trade dispute over durum wheat exports for several years, stemming from a “Made in Italy” country of origin label.
Under the policy, which was set to take effect in mid-February, processors are required to identify where their durum wheat was grown and milled into the semolina flour used to make pasta. Similarly, rice packaging must identify where the rice was grown, treated and processed.
Canadian farm groups want the policy challenged at the World Trade Organization, arguing it discriminates against Canadian product. Cereals Canada President Cam Dahl told iPolitics no Canadian durum wheat is currently being exported to Italy because of the policy.
Saskatchewan’s Agriculture Minister Lyle Stewart told reporters last July he expected the policy would end up at the WTO. “Italy’s being very aggressive on this,” he said at the time. “We had hopes the EU would stop this thing before it ever got to the WTO, but if that had failed, this might at least shorten up the process.”
“Even if it does come to a decision at the WTO, I think Canada will be in pretty good shape on this one.”