By JOHN O'CONNELL
Common certification standards recently adopted by the major U.S. seed potato production states should simplify market access negotiations with foreign nations, creating trade opportunities, industry leaders say.
Previously, state certification programs were all unique, forcing foreign countries to negotiate with states separately. States may still exceed the shared standards outlined in the State National Harmonization Program, a collaborative effort also involving the National Potato Council, the U.S. Potato Board, the National Plant Board and state seed certification agencies.
"Most countries have one seed certification and monitoring by the federal government. In the U.S., we do it state by state. When we negotiate for access, it gets kind of confusing for other countries," said John Toaspern, USPB's vice president of international marketing.
A dozen states covering 98.5 percent of U.S. seed production acres -- Idaho, Oregon, Washington, Montana, Colorado, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, Wisconsin and Wyoming -- have voluntarily submitted plans demonstrating compliance with the new baseline standards. The program can't be launched until the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service visited states and approved plans covering at least 95 percent of U.S. seed acres.
California, New York and Alaska are still completing entry requirements. Alabama, Pennsylvania and West Virginia produce no seed but joined SNHP to show they follow best practices.
The concept was first discussed during a 2002 potato summit, and the states have worked ever since to find consensus.
"With the SNHP in place, USDA and the industry should be able to finalize market access for U.S. seed potatoes to Egypt, the Dominican Republic and other potential export markets," NPC and USPB wrote in a joint press release.
University of Idaho Extension seed pathologist Phil Nolte said the program sought "loose standards." Nonetheless, there were sticking points over issues such as mandatory shipping-point inspections of seed. Idaho, for example, already required seed samples to be inspected as a last line of defense before shipping to a customer.
"I think some (states) did step their game up. Idaho was one of the states that didn't have to do as much," Nolte said, adding the agreement provides a framework to tighten regulations in the future.
NPC spokesman Mark Szymanski said SNHP should also facilitate interstate seed trade.
"If you're all playing by the same set of standards, you can be assured the seed coming from next door has the same standards applied as seed produced in your state," Szymanski said.
Since Idaho's SNHP plan was approved early in the process, St. Anthony, Idaho, seed grower Dirk Parkinson said some foreign governments have already had the confidence to engage in limited seed importing. During the past three years, he's sold small amounts of seed to Nicaragua, Brazil, Thailand and Mauritius, as well as experimental seed for Egypt to test in field trials. He believes none of those opportunities would have been possible without progress on SNHP.
"I just want to diversify my market," Parkinson said. "There's only one country where potato use is shrinking, and that's the U.S. Everywhere else it's skyrocketing."