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Pest risk analysis: global harmonization benefits biodiversity

Bram de Hoop

International Standards Adviser, Netherlands Plant Protection Service, P.O. Box 9102, 6700 HC Wageningen, the Netherlands; e-mail:


Pest risk analysis is one of the core elements for protecting plant health today, as reflected by the International Plant Protection Convention and its international standards for phytosanitary measures. The first international pest risk analysis standard became available in February 1996. Seven years later, in April 2003, the international plant protection community adopted a standard (supplementary to another pest risk analysis standard of 2001) to allow for specific focus on environmental risk. This paper discusses the requirements of international agreements for technical justification of phytosanitary measures, the elements of pest risk analysis, the need for more international standards, recent developments in addressing environmental risk and the potential for dispute settlement mechanisms to contribute to protecting the environment.


Hazardous risks of plant pests have increased over the past century with the increasing international trade in plants and plant products. Plant pests can result in unacceptable damage to both cultivated and uncultivated plants. This has led to the establishment of national plant protection organizations throughout the world. The Netherlands Plant Protection Organization, for example, was established in 1899, with the recognition of “plant protection” as a leading concept for governmental action (Koeman and Zadoks, 1999). However, national plant protection organizations are now faced with substantial changes in international agreements, which will have a direct impact on international trade and plant production systems.

As described previously (see chapter 1), three key international agreements relate to plant protection: the International Plant Protection Convention, the Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures of the World Trade Organization and the Convention on Biological Diversity. International standards for phytosanitary measures developed within the framework of the IPPC are recognized within the SPS Agreement as the appropriate standards on which WTO members should base their phytosanitary measures. For furthering the protection of biological diversity worldwide, guidelines adopted under the CBD in 2002 aim to assist countries in dealing with the impacts of invasive alien species, including plant pests (CBD, 2002; refer footnote page 7).

The IPPC framework, including the national plant protection organizations of all its contracting parties, could well provide an institutional framework that serves the objectives of the CBD and WTO as well. A key element for all three international agreements is the application of pest risk analysis.

Pest risk analysis

Pest risk analysis is not a new concept. During previous centuries it was recognized that plant pests could be controlled best by regulatory measures developed and executed by a national authority.

Assessments on the impact of plant pests and scientific information can provide the justification for such measures. The first international pest risk analysis standard, ISPM 2: Guidelines for pest risk analysis, became available in February 1996. Five years later, ISPM 11 [2001]: Pest risk analysis for quarantine pests was adopted.

Opinions about the feasibility of prevention of the international spread of pests differ (Bos, 1988). Bos noted that pathologists tend to be conservative and to play safe. Breeders take a more liberal view and focus first on the benefits of introducing new varieties, which may include resistance to new pests as well. Despite these seemingly opposing views, it is clear that without the international movement of plant material, especially plant propagation material, agriculture would not be what it is today. Increasingly so, such international movement of plants and plant products is required in order to keep feeding the ever-growing world population. Therefore plant quarantine measures should be realistic and aim for “Improvement of the rapid and safe global transfer of [plants and plant products]” (Chiarappa and Karpati, 1981).

To combine speed and safety of global movement implies compromise and acceptance of certain risks. It is here that “good governance” is essential for individual countries in order to determine:

Together these three steps constitute the process known as pest risk analysis. The end result of the application of the pest risk analysis process is usually an advice to a national authority favouring or disfavouring phytosanitary measures (Hopper, 1993).

Phytosanitary measures

Countries putting in place new phytosanitary regulations affecting the trade of other countries have two options for complying with international agreements. Technical justification can be attained by completing a pest risk analysis. Alternatively, countries can base measures on relevant international standards, if these exist.

Standard setting within the framework of the IPPC started in 1995. To date only one specific commodity standard has been developed, namely ISPM 15: Guidelines for regulating wood packaging material in international trade. Because ISPMs are recognized by the WTO, standard setting is acknowledged as the most important tool for promoting international harmonization, both for safeguarding countries against phytosanitary risks and for preventing unnecessary inhibitions to trade. The more standards the better, it is often argued. There are several pros and cons to this hypothesis, as outlined below.

More specific standards

Whenever there is no trade (or trade history) of a specific commodity between two countries, the importing country often prohibits the initiation of trade. For trade to take place, an exporting country must file a request, provide information and then wait for completion of the pest risk analysis by the importing country, which may take several years. In principle, importing countries are justified in imposing import prohibitions in view of uncertainties on the possible impact of plant pests associated with the commodity.

If an internationally agreed standard existed for phytosanitary measures for all possible pests of the commodity concerned, then phytosanitary safeguards as well as facilitation of trade could more readily take place. The exporting country would have to demonstrate to the importing country only its capability for complying with the standard.

More specific standards could lead to more phytosanitary regulations, which may result in new obstacles to trade. However, if more international standards were available, importing countries would not have to put in place so many new phytosanitary regulations. Also, exporting countries would face fewer difficulties from having to provide the information necessary for completing pest risk analysis by the importing country.

The first specific commodity standard developed within the IPPC framework, ISPM 15, is concerned with regulating packaging material. This is noteworthy from an environmental viewpoint. Wood packaging in international trade may serve as a pathway for plant pests posing a threat mainly to living trees. The standard is of benefit, first, to forest plant health because new regulations for its protection can be implemented more readily worldwide. Plant health regulators and trade also benefit by having clear guidelines for the commodity.

Unfortunately such commodity standards are difficult to develop. Many ICPM resources will be needed in attempting the development of more specific standards, as already demonstrated by the citrus canker standard, which has been under development for several years.

Adding to the difficulties of developing international standards for specific commodities and pests of environmental consequence, ecosystems always differ from one country to another. Therefore countries face different types of environmental plant health problems. In the case of different pest risks, countries will usually opt for different phytosanitary requirements or pest risk management options. Harmonization of measures based on international standards may then be less useful. However, specific standards could be especially helpful for harmonizing management options for similar pest risks. For instance, wood packaging material is recognized as an important pathway for forest pests by many countries; this accord was crucial for the adoption of ISPM 15.

If the appropriate phytosanitary standard is not available, then countries have the alternative of risk analysis to support their restrictive measures. Pest risk analysis helps countries to focus on the specific pest risks to their plant biodiversity and for this reason will always be necessary.

New developments

The contracting parties to the IPPC recognized the need to address environmental concerns relating to plant pests and developed a reference standard specifically to target the analysis of environmental risks posed by plant pests. This was adopted in April 2003 as a supplement (Analysis of environmental risks) to ISPM 11 [2001]: Pest risk analysis for quarantine pests (FAO, 2003). In particular, plants being traded can be considered as potential plant pests because exotic plants can become weeds for cultivated plants or affect plant biological diversity through competition. These guidelines take into account the CBD’s guiding principles for the prevention, introduction and mitigation of impacts of invasive alien species.

Dispute settlement and jurisprudence

International harmonization of phytosanitary measures can be successful only if contracting parties implement standards. Control systems are needed to verify whether this is done. A breakthrough of the agreements establishing the WTO was the development of a strengthened dispute settlement mechanism (WTO, 1994). If countries can not resolve trade disputes bilaterally, a WTO dispute procedure can be initiated. The outcome of such a procedure is binding. Compliance by concerned countries with international standards is an important judgement criterion for decisions by WTO dispute panels. A major disadvantage of WTO dispute settlement procedures is the high costs for concerned parties. Moreover, if the losing party does not comply with the outcome, the other party may “retaliate” by imposing import restrictions on other commodities with a similar market volume. Such an outcome would never compensate for the losses incurred by the concerned industry of the winning country, nor would it be helpful for protecting plant health and plant biodiversity.

From a plant health perspective, phytosanitary disputes may better be resolved within the framework of the IPPC. In 2001, the ICPM adopted procedures for dispute settlement (FAO, 2001) and the following year established the subsidiary body responsible for administering them. The IPPC procedures rely on the voluntary cooperation of both disputing parties, who are not bound by the findings of the subsidiary body. The use of the IPPC dispute settlement mechanism could provide valuable jurisprudence for consideration in phytosanitary disputes carried out through the WTO mechanism. To date, no dispute settlement has taken place within the IPPC framework.

Reference standards concerning the main rights and obligations of contracting parties to the IPPC have largely been developed. The resources of the IPPC may now better be targeted at identifying and resolving phytosanitary issues between members. Again, the outcome of such disputes could add to a compilation of jurisprudence, which, in this instance, could be used as the basis for developing specific standards. In effect, this could truly improve plant health benefiting all concerned parties, including growers, consumers and the environment.


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