Exporting U.S.-grown food and fiber to an economically maturing and hungry world was a booming business last year that only got better in the early part of 2011, according to Peter Tabor, director of Plant Division, USDA/FAS’s Office of Scientific and Technical Affairs.

Tabor told more than 100 farmers, ag chem registrants, PCAs and consultants at a workshop in San Francisco that U.S. exports in 2010 were up $17 billion dollars over the year before. Besides that, agricultural exports increased by a whopping 30 percent from January through March this year, compared to the same period a year ago. The U.S. exported $115.8 billion in agricultural products in 2010.

However, Tabor’s good news was tempered by the sobering main topic — maximum residue levels — of the event sponsored by the California Specialty Crops Council.

For anyone who grows or processes for export, MRLs are a daily concern. The U.S. EPA and some states like California register and regulate the use of crop protection in this country. Many countries accept the EPA’s standards. However, many of the major U.S. customers do not recognize EPA standards and set their own pesticide use rules. MRLs are one of those standards.

The list of those establishing their own version of the U.S. EPA is growing. Many of these are American agriculture’s best export customers.

There are roughly 200 countries in the world and to those who manufacture chemicals and export agricultural products, it must seem like there are 200 sets of rules. There aren’t, but after a round-the-world day and a half day update on the subject of MRLs, it sure appears that way.

Heightened food safety concerns and the growing number of developing countries flexing their regulatory muscle have created a labyrinth of regulations that growers, PCAs and processors must navigate successfully to ship products overseas without being penalized. This not only includes knowing what residue levels are permitted at each destination, but what chemicals are registered in which countries. Compounding the issue is the fact growers and processors often do not know where a commodity they are growing will be eventually marketed. If in doubt, some say don’t use it. Others take their chances that there will be no pesticide residues found, if tested. Exporting has always been a somewhat risky business, and MRLs are increasing the stakes.