Produce trade between Canada, the United States and Mexico is big business. Canada imported more than $6.3 billion in fresh and frozen fruit and vegetable produce from the U.S. and Mexico last year. We also sent more than $2.7 billion in produce south of the border, including $1.3 billion worth of vegetables from Ontario alone. Canada and the U.S. are each other’s largest trading partners in agriculture, while Canada is the third largest export market for Mexico. Agriculture trade forms a key part of all three economies.
The establishment of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994 created the largest free trading region in the world. This trading environment gave consumers wider access to food and increased market size for domestic growers considering exports. The extent of this trade relationship wouldn’t be nearly as prolific without the regulatory cooperation promoted between these countries over the past two decades. An important component of this cooperation for crop protection has been the creation of the NAFTA Trilateral Working Group (TWG) on pesticides.
Established in 1996, the goals of the TWG are to collaborate on crop protection regulation, eliminating barriers and promoting food trade across the three countries. There have been some solid achievements in regulatory harmonization under the TWG including joint registration reviews, NAFTA-wide product labels and alignment of Maximum Residue Limits (MRLs). These efforts have been commended for increasing the speed of the review process, benefitting regulators, registrants, and growers. The public has also indirectly benefitted through growers gaining access to new crop protection technology sooner.
The 2019 edition of the TWG was held the first week of September with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) hosting the meeting at its headquarters for pesticide programs in Arlington, Virginia – across the river from Washington, DC. It marked the first TWG meeting since the U.S. began the renegotiation of NAFTA last summer. Representatives were present from all three countries, including the Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA), EPA, SENASICA (Mexico), registrants, CropLife and other government departments. Many grower groups including the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers’ Association and the Canadian Horticultural Council also attended.
It was clear that the lack of a new ratified trade agreement between the nations impeded any significant outcome at the TWG. Despite the Canada-United States-Mexico Agreement being signed by all three countries, it has yet to be ratified by domestic governments in Canada or the United States. The prospect of federal elections in Canada this fall and the United States in 2020 added further uncertainty to this TWG, at least from the perspective of the regulatory agencies. Unfortunately, despite over two decades of trilateral meetings, there is still much work to achieve the original objectives of the TWG as set out almost 25 years ago.
One of the original goals of the TWG was to achieve full North American collaboration during product reviews including re-evaluation. Despite significant progress on collaboration during new registrations, the re-evaluation process at PMRA or the equivalent registration review at EPA is far from aligned. This is currently a major issue in horticultural crops where Canadian growers have been losing access to products during re-evaluation that continue to be acceptable south of the border. One of the most common deviations for PMRA compared to EPA in this process has been the selection of conservative safety factors and/or toxicological endpoints. These alone can determine if a product will pass or fail re-evaluation.
The PMRA and the EPA have the same mission: to protect human health and the environment. That has not guaranteed their alignment. Drastically divergent decisions through these processes causing different registrations, use patterns, re-entry intervals, and pre-harvest intervals create advantages for other jurisdictions frustrating growers for good reason. Our free trade environment in North America has certainly increased availability for consumers and opened export opportunities for Canadian growers. However, in a mature industry with small margins, advantages such as better access to crop protection products can make the difference – in favour of the competition.
Just like many industries, our fruit and vegetable markets in North America have been integrated. The TWG recognized the importance of regulatory harmonization for crop protection products now almost 25 years ago. Canada, the United States, and Mexico must continue this progress towards increased harmonization, especially alignment of scientific methodology and processes for registering and reviewing products. This would go a long way towards harmonized or closely aligned use patterns and MRLs in North America, levelling the playing field for growers across the board, and further facilitating the high degree of produce access to which we’ve become accustomed.