July 25, 2018 | Steven Kilger

Systems Approach Seeks to Solve Trade Dispute

The Systems Approach for U.S. Soybeans Exported to China hopes to reduce the number of weed seeds shipped to China

In 2016, China passed a law meant to limit the number of foreign weeds and plant pests entering the country via grain shipments. In September of the following year China’s General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (AQSIQ), informed the USDA that shipments of soybeans from the United States were not complying with the new regulation. 

The Chinese government cited increased detection of forging material and threatened to hold back grain shipments with more than 1% foreign material for further testing, while those with less than 1% would be expedited.

The news of China’s foreign material requirements caused a strong reaction from U.S. soybean farmers who rely on exports to China as a major source of revenue. 
One-third of U.S. soybeans get exported to China, totaling $12.4 billion in 2017 according to the USDA. That number amounts to 91% of the total value of U.S grain exports to China. With the U.S. agriculture economy struggling over the past several years, anything affecting the flow of soybeans to China has the potential to be devastating. The USDA moved quickly to negate any effects on the market and negotiated with AQSIQ to hold off implementation of the policy until Jan. 1, 2018. 

In the end, no shipments of soybeans to China were canceled or delayed because of the new threshold on foreign material. This was due to an agreement made between USDA and the AQSIQ on how to limit the number of foreign material, specificity weed seeds, in shipments of soybeans from the United States. 

The agreement 

The USDA-AQSIQ agreement  stops China from delaying shipments in exchange for more testing on the American side of the exchange to make sure shipments are below that 1% threshold. The Federal Grain Inspection Service sampled China-bound soybean shipments, and if the shipment were above the threshold, APHIS included an additional declaration on the phytosanitary certificate.
For its part, China agreed to expedite shipments with less than 1% foreign material and determine the appropriate action needed for shipments with more than 1% foreign material (including inspection, cleaning, treatment or other protective actions). The AQSIQ also agreed not to hold or delay any shipments based purely on the volume. 

To make sure more of the United States’ shipments of soybeans complied with the new threshold, APHIS worked with stakeholders from across the industry and came up with the Systems Approach for U.S. Soybeans Exported to China. 

This voluntary set of best practices is designed to reduce the number of foreign materials soybean shipments accumulate throughout the supply chain. 

Weed seeds 

China specifically cited an uptick in weed seeds mixed in with shipments of soybeans as the reason for implementing the new 1% threshold for foreign material. William Wepsala, public affairs specialist, USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, says China responding to an increase in weed seeds with new regulations is not that uncommon.

“Weeds and weed seeds are a serious phytosanitary concern,” Wepsala says. “Most countries, including the United States, often take action when weeds or weed seeds are detected in imported commodities. That means the importing country may require additional inspections, treatment or other measures to reduce pest risk.”

Although AQSIQ gave APHIS a list of 77 weeds it wants to keep out of shipments, the supply chain needs to focus on a considerably shorter list. Wepsala says grain producers and handlers should be on the lookout primarily for four commonly found weeds.

“We’re asking participants along the supply chain to look for and control all weeds, especially common weeds like ragweed, cocklebur, Johnsongrass and pigweed, or any weed species that may have developed herbicide-resistance,” Wepsala explains.

China also considers volunteer corn, corn that grows from seeds left behind from past harvests, a noxious weed.   

On the farm 

When developing the Systems Approach for U.S. Soybeans Exported to China, APHIS reached out to the entirety of the soybean supply chain to develop a solution that would be palpable for all the actors involved. The resulting Systems Approach was published in the spring of 2018, right before the planting of that year’s soybean crop.

“USDA worked closely with U.S. grain industry groups and allied associations and academia to identify current best practices for integrated weed management, soybean production and harvesting and grain handling,” Wepsala says.

The plan starts on the farm, where many of the best practices are implemented. Actions are taken during the planting, growing and harvesting seasons that will affect the number of seeds in a soybean crop, and the amount of work required to get a shipment to be under the 1% threshold. 

Suggestions, tips and best practices for managing weeds on the farm can be found on USDA’s On-Farm Checklist.

The elevator’s place

While most of the best practices for the Systems Approach for U.S. Soybeans Exported to China take place on the farm, the local grain elevator is also a key player. 
 “Specifically, we are asking grain elevators and export facilities to examine soybeans upon arrival for weed seeds, especially ragweed, Johnsongrass, cocklebur and pigweed, and ensure bins are clean and free from any noxious weeds, soil or foreign materials,” says Wepsala. 

The system also asks that elevators consider separating the weed seeds from soybeans and then destroy or denature the seeds and that bins, belt and scales are clear of any other grains, especially corn. China considers any corn that makes it into a shipment of soybeans a noxious weed. 

It is important to note that The Systems Approach for U.S. Soybeans Exported to China is not a regulation, it is an optional set of best practices that will give soybean shipments heading to China their best chance of arriving without being held up by Chinese authorities. It’s up to the elevator to implement as many or as few of the best practices as are right for the individual elevator. 

The advantage

The USDA has received a favorable response from those in the  soybean supply to the rollout of the Systems Approach for U.S. Soybeans Exported to China in part because similar systems are known to work.

“Systems approaches are an effective, scientifically sound tool for managing pest risk and addressing plant-health related trade concerns,” Wepsala explains. “The United States produces a number of commodities under systems approaches and often requires importing countries to use systems approaches to facilitate safe trade and prevent the introduction of damaging pests into this country.”

Just because there are other systems approaches, does not mean that the soybeans approach is cookie cutter, nor that it is unchangeable. The USDA will collaborate with AQSIQ in December 2019 to make sure that the system is working, with a mid-point assessment this December.

“USDA will also be working with U.S. industry and select local, regional and export elevators to monitor soybeans as they pass through elevators and are loaded for export to foreign markets to confirm the effectiveness of the systems approach,” Wepsala says. ❚

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