Nontariff barriers’ real world impacts

For those that work in or follow trade policy, getting used to swimming in a sea of acronyms has long been part of the job. But with specific trade barriers proliferating, especially in the areas of plant and human health, even wheat farmers are facing questions or hearing concerns about barriers such as SPS, NTBs or MRLs. Whether a person knows the acronyms or not, the increasing use of trade barriers can have an impact on their bottom line. But with cooperative work across the U.S. government and wheat industry, we can both limit their scope and manage their impact on trade.

So, what are they?

An NTB is a nontariff barrier to trade. They encompass a large set of more specific barriers, like nonscience-based sanitary and phytosanitary—that’s the SPS—rules and measures, such as requirements for import permits, country of origin labeling and pre-shipment inspections. Sanitary refers to human and animal health, and phytosanitary refers to plant health.

What does a real-world NTB look like?

As a widely grown, staple human food, imported wheat often receives additional scrutiny from NTBs. At times, countries may enforce tight rules to protect domestic growers. Some markets may also seek to protect growers of other staples like rice, or even corn, by placing additional scrutiny on wheat imported for feed.

Examples of recent NTB challenges to wheat include:

  • Weed seed restrictions, such as jointed goatgrass seeds in Chile, which, for a time, required mills to burn mill screenings rather than processing them for feed. Or, despite ample evidence the weed can’t reproduce in the local climate, Vietnam’s zero tolerance policy on Canadian thistle seeds. As a result, U.S. exporters have had to run additional cleaning to service one of the fastest growing Asian Pacific markets.
  • The detection of restricted plant pests such as bunts or smuts. All shipments to China from the U.S. must be tested for TCK (dwarf bunt) and be under a pre-established threshold. The EU continues to test all U.S. cargoes for karnal bunt using a complex and time-consuming spore wash method.
  • The presence of crop protection product residues is an NTB that is growing quickly. Residues are governed by individual countries using Maximum Residue Levels (MRLs), and many are based on trade-facilitating sound science. But more and more countries are setting MRLs so low that any detection results in violations. This past year, we saw the EU and Thailand set effective zero limits for the stored-grain insecticide chlorpyrifos methyl and place restrictions on other chemicals.

What can be done?

While it may seem there is little an individual producer can do about these issues, we can work together to ensure wheat exports are unimpeded. The first is to insist on the use of sound science both in the U.S. and abroad. The U.S. and EU are models for other countries when they set their own regulations, but in different ways. The U.S. follows a risk-based approach that evaluates the actual risks posed to the environment or humans from either a plant pest or pesticide. The EU follows a hazard-based approach and regulates threats based solely on whether they can be hazards, regardless of their residue level or the actual risk posed. To put this in other terms, the EU would look at a risky activity such as driving a car and ban it outright due to the potential for deadly car accidents, rather than considering the actual risk to the population and setting rules to mitigate those risks, such as speed limits, lane dividers and seat belts. The U.S. must take a strong position in international organizations like the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations or CODEX to support the use of science in regulatory matters.

We can also insist that our producer organizations, including groups like U.S. Wheat Associates (USW), make reducing these barriers a part of their everyday missions. USW has committed three staff members to work on trade policy and SPS barriers, plus has a working group (chaired by Glen Squires, CEO of the Washington Grain Commission) that regularly reviews changes proposed by importers and advocates aggressively to oppose or mitigate trade restrictions.

A final, key part of avoiding such barriers falls to individual producers. To encourage them to use the latest crop production technologies judiciously, such as following label directions, heeding chemical company advice on product selection and doing their part to keep weeds (many of which may be common in the U.S.) from ending up in large quantities in wheat shipments (keeping them out of regulators’ ire).


When the industry works together, solutions can be found, and markets opened. Sometimes, solutions are quick, such as Chile’s mid-2020 acceptance of hammer milling goatgrass seeds rather than burning. Other times, it takes years of concerted work, as in the case of TCK and China. The agreement that opened all U.S. ports to serve China and established a spore limit for TCK was decades in the making and required due diligence on the part of Pacific Northwest growers using TCK-controlling fungicides and responsible handling by exporters. But that work eventually led to 2020 being a break-out year for soft white wheat exports to China with record sales of more than 1 million tons.

With more focus and cooperative work, the U.S. wheat industry can make solutions to NTBs like these more common and facilitate wheat movement from our farms to mills and wheat customers around the globe.

This article originally appeared in the July 2021 issue of Wheat Life Magazine.

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