Consumers, especially in rich countries, have become very choosy. They do not only demand products which are hygienic, well presented and of high quality but are also absolutely free from contamination and meet other international standards. Keeping in view the lack of progress on this aspect of our exports, the Department of Plant Protection (DPP) of the Ministry of National Food Security and Research (MNFSR) was finally forced to ban the use of wood packaging including crates, boxes and cases, for storing fruits and vegetables intended for exports with effect from May 20, 2015. As the reports indicate, DPP had received serious warnings from the European Union and other countries about increasing interceptions of consignments infested with pests and deterioration in quality due to use of wooden packaging and the decision was taken considering phytosanitary measures since wood is believed to be the pathway to the introduction of pests. According to the circular, no official phytosanitary certificate will be issued to any perishables (fruits and vegetables) intended for export in wood packing material under the guidelines of ISPM-15 to which Pakistan is a signatory in compliance to the procedures of the International Plant Protection Convention 1951. In a letter to the MNFSR, Co-Chairman, All Pakistan Fruit and Vegetable Exporters, Waheed Ahmed, had also said that the Association was against the use of wood packaging currently in use which is made of untreated wood and poor in presentation. Some countries still use wood for packaging but that wood is properly treated, evenly coloured and sustainably sourced. However, if exporters in Pakistan use this standard of wooden packaging, its costs could far outweigh the cost of corrugated packaging.
The above episode underlines the importance of certain relatively minor details and factors which are impeding the growth of our exports and tarnishing the image of our country as a producer in the international market. Pakistanis visiting abroad could easily see that supermarkets in the Middle East and other developed countries are reluctant to showcase Pakistani products which are usually dumped in their basements and back-shelves for sale at cheap prices. Foreign buyers do not only demand attractive packaging but complete compliance with international standards such as Global Care, Global Gap, ISO. It may be worth noting in this context that Dubai is a transit hub for some of our exports and once there, exports are re-exported in better packaging to other Gulf countries including Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon, etc, as they do not accept wooden crates. Also, Pakistan is the only major exporter of fruits in wooden packaging in unrefrigerated containers to the UAE and Oman although such a practice is not allowed by international standards. The country could also face another issue in the near future. Some of the governments have started initiatives to ban wooden packaging from unsustainable sources to stop deforestation. All of this means that Pakistani exporters need to use corrugated cartons as early as possible and such a practice could play a pivotal role in the enhancement of exports. Fortunately, there are plenty of corrugated production units in the country to cater to the increased demand and make the early changeover possible. Besides, if the same practice could be adopted in the domestic market for packaging of fruits and vegetables, development of fungus could be avoided and producers could get a better price. The cost of substandard packaging and presentation of our exports to the country could be seen from the fact that though Pakistani mangoes are rated as the best and are in great demand in the international market but only about 7 percent of the output is exported due to poor marketing practices.
The need for such a changeover would probably have not been that great if exports of the country were increasing at a satisfactory pace. It is unfortunate that despite the grant of GSP plus status to Pakistan by the EU in January, 2014, exports grew merely by 1 percent in 2013-14 as against the IMF projection of 6 percent and are likely to fall in FY15. Foreign exchange reserves have increased mainly because Pakistan has gone on an external borrowing spree which could prove risky in the foreseeable future. In order to increase the value of exports, the country has to attend to minor details of each and every exportable item to satisfy foreign customers and diversify our exports with particular emphasis on non-traditional items like vegetables and fruits which at present constitute only 2-3 percent of the total exports. We appreciate the present initiative of the DPP of the MNFSR to discourage the use of unhygienic and unattractive packing, but we feel that our exporters themselves need to be more active and fully prepared to meet the latest requirements of the markets abroad which is the only way to remain competitive in the international market, earn more foreign exchange for the country and modernise the agriculture sector. It is true that the artisans and labourers associated with wooden packaging may find themselves redundant for a short period of time but they could learn to work for corrugated packaging without much effort and be more productive for the country in the medium to long-term.