Robynne Anderson's Emerging Thoughts on Ag

Trading is the Spice of Life

IMG_3321The Spice Islands. Malabar. These names evoke historical ties to distant lands, exotic tastes, and thrilling adventures. The spice trade was the foundation of globalism and multiculturalism before we talked about such things.

These traders have always been ethnically diverse, creative and co-operative to ensure the spices are shared around the world. So it was a great thrill for me to join them at the International Spice Conference in Kerala, India. Kerala is one of the biggest spice producing regions, and I will note the food is every bit as wonderful as one might imagine from a land where turmeric, cumin and curry leaves are common.

But the spice trade doesn’t just aim to challenge your taste buds and make you healthier with curcumin, it turns out the world’s most global trade also wants to open your mind. Under the theme “disrupt or be disrupted,” they looked at everything from new delivery technologies to the ways to provide better incomes to small farmers. It was suggested farmer incomes should go up at the same percentage as the value of product, and who couldn’t agree? Just think about smallholders picking chilis by hand. They contemplated ways to address consumer trends that seek “local” food but want exotic tastes. It’s especially challenging when you consider a clove tree won’t just grow anywhere.

These competing forces are even more complex when you layer on a tone of trade protectionism and disruption. International cuisine is part of any millennial’s day. They would consider hummus, or a curry, just as much a part of life as a hamburger. However, to meet those tastes, spices will need to move around the globe just as much as they ever have – probably more. To do that, they need trading systems that work.

At the core of that is Codex Alimentarius, a global system to set food safety standards. At its heart, Codex should provide global science that makes it possible to trade among 188 countries with assurances of known, agreed food safety levels for consumers. Without this, trade devolves into a chaos of 188 nations with no known or consistent standards. Suddenly a cardamom farmer in India is supposed to be able to meet countless combinations of standards.

This is particularly challenging for small crops like spices. What resources do exist in Codex get focused on big crops like rice and corn. That is why we need better budgets for Codex – particularly so the vital technical committees can work more efficiently.

Certainly my food wouldn’t be the same without ginger or oregano or pepper. So mobilizing new, regularized funding of Codex, supporting a catch up plan for the backlog of science reviews and getting serious about using electronic systems to share data reviews are just a few steps to make the system better.

All of it underpins the access for some of the world’s smallest and most exotic farmers to markets. Plus, for me as a consumer, while that local apple will be a great purchase, its even better with a little cinnamon on it.