Unlike large-area crops such as corn, wheat, cotton or rice, specialty crops have traditionally been produced in relatively small amounts. As a result, studies on the proper use of pesticides in their cultivation have not been as systematic or widespread as they have been for major cash crops.
This poses problems for producers, many of them in the developing world, who are struggling to export their goods to overseas markets with strong safety standards for imports.
Not a minor issue
International trade in specialty crops is booming, thanks to increased levels of human migration that have spread once-regional tastes to all corners of the globe and modern preservation and transportation techniques that permit retailers to cater to the tastes of these new consumer markets.
FAO data show that trade in non-traditional agricultural exports is worth more than US$30 billion a year.
Developing countries have a 56 percent share of that trade.
'For some countries and crops, like green beans in Kenya and exotic fruits in Malaysia, these 'minor crops' aren't minor at all -- national economies depend on them,' according to Gero Vaagt, a specialist with FAO's Plant Production and Protection Division.
Data gaps pose trade barriers
But as import standards aimed at protecting human health become increasingly strict, producers can run into trouble.
One major problem is that there are gaps at the international level in terms of registered uses for pesticides on speciality crops.
Registration is the process through which national authorities evaluate which pesticides can be used by growers, and how. If a pesticide is permitted for use on certain crops, maximum residue limits (MRLs) are set that govern how much pesticide residue a product can safely contain.
Prior to seeking approval, manufacturers typically conduct extensive field tests and other studies whose results are used by regulators when deciding to approve and register a pesticide. Since this involves a significant financial investment, they tend to focus on pesticides used on major crops only.
'There is little financial incentive for studies of pesticide use for minor crops, and as a result accepted MRLs are lacking, especially at the international level,' explained Shivaji Pandey, Director of FAO's Plant Protection Division.
'This means that when a speciality crop reaches an import market it can be rejected. The pesticide found on it might have been properly applied and existing in safe amounts, but because there's no registered use for it on that crop, it fails the 'zero tolerance' litmus test.'
Meeting at FAO a global first
'This week's Minor Use Summit at FAO is really the first global event on specialty crops and minor uses,' said Pandey.
The event includes two days of hands-on training aimed at spreading knowledge and building the technical expertise of participants, who are drawn from over 60 countries.
'What we're trying to do is to look at ways to come up with more harmonized protection measures for these crops that are efficient, suit the needs of farmers, facilitate trade, ensure food and environmental safety, and benefit consumers,' Mr Pandey said.
In particular, he added, following the summit FAO hopes to see more MRLs for pesticides used on specialty crops established at the international Codex Alimentarius level. Codex is a joint FAO-World Health Organization body that sets international standards for food safety, standards which are relied upon by the World Trade Organization when resolving trade disputes concerning food safety and consumer protection.
The Minor Use Summit was organized by FAO in partnership with U.S. Department of Agriculture and its IR-4 Project and with the United States Environmental Protection Agency.