COVID-19: Exporters welcome forced shift to edocuments

Liz Wells, May 7, 2020

India is continuing to import Australian pulses during the COVID-19 lockdown. Photo: Haldia International Container Terminal, West Bengal

A SHIFT to electronic documentation is helping Australian grain exporters navigate their way through the COVID-19 crisis.

The change has come about because of a drastic reduction in air services available to carry hard copies of financial and biosecurity documents, and trade sources say governments and companies have been nimble in adapting to the new environment.

Like many exporters around the world, they hope these changes stay in place after COVID measures are removed.

Hurdles cleared

In a statement, Grain Trade Australia (GTA) said its discussions with the Federal Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment (DAWE) have led to government-issued phytosanitary certificates being issued electronically.

This has helped to avert delays within the export supply chain.

GTA is in support of International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC) advice for countries “to be as flexible as possible” in the face of COVID-19.

It has encouraged the Australian Government to be open to, and promote with other governments, contingency measures to avoid unnecessary delays and trade disruptions.

GTA has been advised by DAWE that it was working with trading partners where original paper certificates were unlikely to arrive in time for import clearance, and asking them to accept instead one or more of the following:

  • Scanned copies or paper copies of phytosanitary certificates provided directly by the importer;
  • Access to the DAWE webview portal to verify Australian export certificates;
  • DAWE is able to send a scanned copy of the phytosanitary certificate from DAWE if importing country’s National Plant Protection Organisations (NPPO) share concerns with the authenticity of the scanned or paper copies.

DAWE has asked other countries to adopt a similar policy to validate copies presented by importers.

Way forward

Grains Industry Market Access Forum (GIMAF) executive manager Tony Russell said financial and biosecurity documentation appeared not to be holding up Australian exports amid COVID-19 disruptions.

“Even without so many courier services operating because of the limited number of aircraft flying around, arrangements for phytosanitary certificates with key markets have been made.

“I haven’t heard they are causing difficulties.”

“My view is that this is the catalyst to push for a change to the old-fashioned ways we have been dealing with documents and paper,” Mr Russell said.

“Because India’s lockdown was so extensive, India was the only issue and thus far, people have been able to manage around that.”

One trader told Grain Central the limited number of bulk and containerised agricultural exports now going out of Australia was probably enabling supply chains to keep up in the challenging environment.

“So far, everything’s working reasonably well,” the trader said.

Container supply adequate

A drought-reduced Australian cotton crop now being ginned, as well as minimal chickpea exports, and a seasonal slowdown in bulk and boxed pulse and cereal exports, are all helping to keep pressure off Australian shipping.

“From what I’ve heard, there has been, and will continue to be, a limited supply of containers, but exporters are managing,” Mr Russell said.

Mungbeans are now being harvested in Queensland and northern New South Wales and are being packed into containers for export.

China and India are the primary destinations, with some transshipment occurring through Singapore and Kaohsiung.

“We’re getting enough containers, and shipping is not an issue,” Australian Choice Exports managing director and Australian Mungbean Association vice-president James Hunt said.

“We’ve been packing for three weeks, and it looks like most of the ports have continued to function.”

Mr Hunt said electronic documentation brought in because of COVID had made it possible to keep exporting.

“It would be great if it was here to stay.”

Concerns in South Asia

India and Sri Lanka are two markets Australian exporters are watching with interest as COVID-19 impacts.

The tourism-dependent economy of Sri Lanka is hurting with COVID-19 travel restrictions in place, and its government last month is believed to have suspended some imports because payments cannot be processed.

GrainTrend director Sanjiv Dubey said Sri Lanka’s problem appears to be that its banks cannot get US dollars to enable importers to pay for goods.

“It’s not the counterparty risk that’s the problem.

“COVID has thrown all currencies out of gear, and economies like Sri Lanka’s that are quite influenced by China’s are experiencing problems.”

Trade sources have said while grain and pulses can still be imported, payment to exporters is not expected before July.

“Because of lockdowns in Vietnam, Indonesia and other countries, there’s a whole lot of uncertainty everywhere you look.”

India’s problem with COVID-19 is tied to internal and port-based logistics.

“There is not enough labour for harvest or trucks to move grain, or wholesale markets to absorb the grain.

“Before COVID, India was talking about a huge rabi crop, and being a net exporter of wheat.”

“Now we don’t know what is going to happen.”

Mr Russell said India’s COVID lockdown appears to have increased the country’s need for some imported pulses.

India has a zero or minimal tolerance for more than 50 weed seeds, including wild radish, which was added in November.

“Wild radish is a very prevalent weed in Australia, and you only need one to have your container rejected.

“They’ve cleared some consignments of Australian lentils with wild radish detected that have been there since November.

“We have some product going in.”




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  1. Craig Fedchock, May 8, 2020

    The International Plant Protection Convention Secretariat has developed the ePhyto Solution for the digital exchange of phytosanitary certificates. Eighty two countries are now registered on the system and as of May 12, with the European Community going live, 40 countries will be fully active in the system. In addition, Argentina and Chile announced this week that they are fully paperless using ePhyto. For more information visit: http://www.ephytoexchange .org

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