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Codex News Item, 23 August 2021
The Codex Committee on Pesticide Residues met virtually from 26 July 2021 to 3 August 2021. This news item provides some information on the way the Secretariat views virtual meetings.
The Codex Committee on Pesticide Residues (CCPR)wrapped up its 52nd session advancing new Codex Maximum Residue Limits (MRLs) for spices, seeds, fruits, and other commodities to the 44th Session of the Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAC44). These limits for pesticide residues in food are established by Codex based on a risk assessment and limits for safe intake set by an FAO/WHO international expert scientific group named Joint FAO/WHO Meeting on Pesticide Residues (JMPR).
Gracia Brisco, the Food Standards Officer in the Codex Secretariat responsible for CCPR, reflected on the progress made by the Committee, and said “We have managed to attain the expected outcomes in this virtual meeting which are overall the same as we would have expected if we met physically. In particular for the MRLs or the revision of the Classification, the expected outcomes were fully achieved.”
Virtual meetings, let alone successful virtual meetings, was not something that could have been forecast. With virtual meetings becoming the norm for Codex starting in 2020, the Committee Hosts, Chairpersons and Secretariat have focused on ensuring that work online progressed just as well as when the committee met physically.
As the Codex Officer responsible for CCPR, did you make changes to the way you prepare for a technical committee meeting?
As virtual meetings have different dynamics from physical meetings, the approach for their preparation is also different and requires lots more preparatory work with the Chair of the Committee, the Host Country Secretariat and the Chairs of the different Electronic Working Groups (EWGs) to facilitate consideration of the items scheduled for discussion within the limited time available. For example, to focus more on the outstanding issues identified by the EWGs Chairs rather than discussing the whole document we could consider, and possibly resolve them, in plenary, by applying different potential scenarios for their consideration and resolution.
Virtual meetings do not mean we can simply transfer the agenda of a physical meeting to a virtual mode. Options are to either keep that agenda with a different approach in mind, or to present an abridged agenda on key issues for discussion in a virtual forum that are amenable to achieve positive outcomes. As for CCPR, the first option was chosen, so we needed to have a different approach to the discussion than we usually had in plenary meetings by applying modern Information and Communication Technology (ICT) tools.
Are there different strategies that you need to apply for these virtual meetings?
As each Committee also has its own dynamics, there is no one-approach-fits-all, so, within this new mode of working through virtual meetings, you have a range of strategies to identify critical issues that will allow the Committee to make progress on their agenda for the next session. It has also become important to understand the history of discussions in a particular committee and its operating practices, and to have a good working relationship with the Chairs of EWGs, the Chair of the Committee and the Host Country Secretariat – this is not something that happens overnight, it builds on the Codex Secretariat’s leadership to guide the process and provide the link between the Chair and the EWG Chairs to team up to navigate the challenges of holding international virtual negotiation meetings such as Codex meetings.
For this particular meeting, there was the core work to deliver, which is the consideration of maximum residue limits for pesticides in food and feed. To keep the same output in 50 percent less time, it was about how to present the information in the document on MRLs and based on this, how to approach their discussion in plenary. This besides other mechanisms we put in place to coordinate the consideration of MRLs with other key related items such as the establishment of schedules and priority list of pesticides for evaluation by JMPR which also involved coordinating meetings before the plenary with key players such as the JMPR Secretariat and the Chair of the EWGs on Priorities.
It was also about identifying other topics in the Step Procedure that had a good chance of moving forward for adoption by CAC based on comments received on specially crafted circular letters (CLs) aimed at getting replies on key or outstanding issues identified by the EWGs Chairs and discuss them in the pre-meetings we organized the week before the plenary session.
So here, it was designing an agenda that allowed the right flow of discussion, presentation of documents already providing guidance either on focusing on key / critical issues or on how to proceed further with the work and organizing pre-meetings.
Do you have to find new ways of approaching the preparations and the discussions themselves?
Definitely, yes. It was not only about using new ICT platforms, but how to use them strategically to make it possible to discuss long and complex agenda items, and to complete the discussion on such items within a reduced amount of time and without other mechanisms to discuss items such as in the margins of a physical plenary. We managed to complete the discussion in CCPR with no additional time for organizing other meetings around the virtual plenary.
It was a novel, refreshing exercise to develop confidence, trust and empathy through remote means of communications, especially with the EWGs Chairs. This new way of communication addressed the different actors, allowing them all on board to work enthusiastically and confidently, so that we could collectively keep the bar high, as we usually do in CCPR.
Communications within a global community are now always easy particularly when dealing with large amounts of information and limited time. However, in the end the approach we took in 2020 when we were not able to meet to establish Codex MRLs for pesticides to protect public health and facilitate trade, led us to a successful outcome in 2021.
Given the ongoing uncertainty around the pandemic how do you see the work of CCPR and indeed other Codex committees working over the next year and beyond?
I can see virtual meetings and the use of ICT tools to facilitate them will remain beyond the pandemic, which just accelerated a situation that would have come sooner or later, and in the future will complement, not replace, the way we do business in Codex. The way Codex does business has changed or would change to adapt not only to emergency situations but to the future and the increased use of electronic means of communication.
There’s a myriad of opportunities to use virtual meetings to make Codex work more efficiently, not only for plenary meetings but for the preparatory work to make physical meetings more productive and focused. I believe that where there are challenges, there are also opportunities to try new things and see what works and what doesn’t.
My personal view about the pandemic was never that there would be constraints or failure for Codex, but rather an opportunity to explore new avenues to improve Codex work, but it will require a redesign of the way we operate in the Codex Secretariat and in Codex in general, for instance, in terms of how we organize the meeting calendar, the way we prioritize work in Codex and the type of support and leadership role required of the Secretariat. And as we are approaching the end of the Codex virtual calendar of 2021, it will be important to take stock of the experience to date and the resources and time it demands to organize virtual meetings.
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