International trade, and the export market, continue to be an ever-changing topic in the agriculture industry. Between increased regulations and new policies, changing consumer tastes and preferences, and complexities in sustainability, it’s difficult to predict how the trade environment will shake out for the coming year.
“When you look at what’s going on, there are issues everywhere, and in many cases, we need different solutions,” said Julie Adams, vice president of Global Technical and Regulatory Affairs at the Almond Board of California (ABC).
Offering perspectives on some of these challenges were industry experts Sara Garcia-Figuera, Clay Hamilton, Keith Schneller and Jonathan Huff during a panel session at The Almond Conference in December 2022.
The EU Green Deal Setting the Tone
Garcia-Figuera is a technical consultant at Prospero & Partners, which has worked with ABC since 2021, specifically in European regulatory and policy developments. They are monitoring what could affect almond growers and handlers based on three categories: imports, competitiveness and demand for almonds.
Driving each of these categories is the European Union’s (EU) Green Deal, which was adopted in 2019 with the aim to transform the EU into a climate-neutral and resource-efficient economy by 2050. It covers all sectors of the economy from agriculture to energy to transport to construction. These policies will likely impact trade with the EU, and it is possible that environmental and sustainability standards will become stricter at a later stage.
While the EU Green Deal covers multiple policy areas, the two strategies most important to the California almond industry are in preserving and restoring ecosystems and biodiversity and fostering a fair and environmentally friendly ‘Farm to Fork’ food system, Garcia-Figuera said.
The Farm to Fork strategy has specific goals in ensuring food security, reducing the environmental footprint, strengthening the EU’s food system resilience and making a global transition toward competitive sustainability from farm to fork, all of which the EU plans to push beyond European territories.
“Europe wants to lead a global transition, so some of the things that are imposed at the EU level might be promoted abroad,” Garcia-Figuera said. “That’s one of the things we’ve been particularly monitoring for the Almond Board, how these global transitions that were adopted in 2019 are going to translate to requirements and things that are going to be implemented over the coming years.”
To further their sustainable measures, the EU has set quantitative targets for the Farm to Fork strategy that they would like to achieve by 2030, focusing on pesticides, nutrient loss, antimicrobials and organic farming.
The EU Strategy envisions reducing pesticide usage by 50%, which has been a controversial topic of discussion, as stakeholders realize it is extremely unrealistic. They’re also aiming to reduce nutrient losses by 50%, reduce the sales of veterinary antibiotics by 50% and increase the percentage of organically farmed land in the EU to reach 25%.
“Very relevant for almond imports was this global dimension of the Farm to Fork strategy,” Garcia-Figuera explained. “They are starting to lower the maximum residue limits (MRLs) for some insecticides for environmental reasons, not for the usual risk-based assessments.”
In the retail space, the Farm to Fork initiative examines sustainability labeling for food, which aims to provide consumers with information on the nutritional, environmental and social aspects of food products. One of the ways they are planning to implement this is through harmonized front-of-pack labeling, Garcia-Figuera explained.
“This is the idea that food products would have a front-of-pack label that would help consumers shift their choices to more healthy diets,” she said. But neither Member States nor industry stakeholders are aligned on the approach.
For the California almond industry, an optimistic note is that the European Food Safety Authority released a report encouraging the consumption of nuts and seeds. Based on this, it is hoped that almonds will score highly on these front-of-pack labels.
The Farm to Fork strategy sets high ambitions, and Garcia-Figuera reiterated the process is moving quickly, so they continue to monitor policy that can have a long-term impact on the almond industry, especially on the production front.
“Overall, we’re seeing there is going to be an effort to drive greater accountability on production practices,” she said. “Information on what California almond growers are already doing, like the initiatives encompassed under the California Almond Stewardship Platform (CASP), will help get the production practices in California recognized and related to the production practices in Europe.”
Continuing to Tell the Stewardship Story
One may wonder how the U.S. government is playing a role in communication between ag industries and their trade markets such as the EU.
Clay Hamilton, associate administrator of USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service, joined the panel to discuss the increased efforts being undertaken to show U.S. trading partners the sustainable practices being applied by American farmers while also emphasizing how these practices must be profitable.
“Farmers all care about the same three things: they want to produce a quality product, they want to take care of their family, and they want to take care of their land,” Hamilton said.
Based on what he is hearing from negotiations between our trading partners, Hamilton encouraged the California almond community to continue sharing the good work, proactive efforts and research growers are doing across the state, because that seems to be what consumers want to hear.
Jonathan Hoff, CEO at Monte Vista Farming and chair of the ABC Technical and Regulatory Affairs committee, agreed with Hamilton, noting how important industry storytelling can be.
“The aggregated self-assessment data collected through CASP, the stewardship platform, is tremendously important in helping us illustrate what our industry is already doing for the folks in the EU and how it already aligns with some of the things that they’re looking for,” Hoff said.
An Ongoing Trend Among Importers
These trade regulations are not isolated to just Europe. With export markets in over 100 countries, the California almond industry must continue to meet requirements to keep product at the forefront of trading partners.
Keith Schneller, trade policy specialist at ABC, commented on further trade issues during the panel, as it pertains to China’s mandatory foreign food processing facility registration law that was implemented on January 1, 2022.
The new regulation was concerning to the California almond industry, being that China is one of the industry’s biggest markets. Ultimately, China’s initiative was to broaden their high-risk food category to include dried nuts like almonds. This meant American companies had to go through FDA to register the product before getting to the Chinese market.
ABC worked with government partners in the U.S. and China to expedite this process, further proving that working collaboratively at a technical level is often the best approach to solving some of these issues, Schneller noted.
Adapting to Challenges
It’s clear that these trade and regulatory issues are not going away, so finding new and creative ways to confront these challenges and support future production growth is key.
While there’s no magic solution, the panelists shared their views that diversification into new markets, creating better relationships with government partners, building alliances in-country and continuing to communicate the industry’s sustainability story, are all ways that will help.
“I know this all sounds pretty challenging and overwhelming, but this industry’s track record has been incredible in addressing tough issues. We are committed to continuing to meet these evolving issues head-on, not only to mitigate the disruptions but to tell the positive story about California almonds going forward,” Adams concluded.