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Science and regulation: a Canadian approach to invasive alien species

Eric Allen and Lesley Cree

(1) Canadian Forest Service, Pacific Forestry Centre, 506 West Burnside Road, Victoria, BC V8Z 1M5, Canada: e-mail:; (2) Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Plant Health Risk Assessment Unit, 3851 Fallowfield Road, Nepean, Ontario K1A 0Y9, Canada; e-mail:


Canada is attempting to address alien species issues through cooperation among government agencies, academic institutions and industry. For organisms of forestry concern, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and the Canadian Forest Service work closely to develop science-based policies and regulations. Increasingly, pest risk assessments are jointly produced with each agency providing unique expertise. This partnership is proving to be very beneficial for both agencies. Canada is also pursuing scientific and regulatory collaboration with the international community through the International Plant Protection Convention and the International Forestry Quarantine Research Group.

Introduction to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) is Canada’s national plant protection organization as defined by the International Plant Protection Convention. In addition to responsibilities for food safety and animal health, the CFIA’s plant health programme is responsible for protecting plant health and production in Canada by preventing the introduction and spread of quarantine pests that threaten Canada’s agriculture, forestry and horticultural resources. CFIA plant health staff undertake risk assessment and policy development and implementation designed to predict, prevent or respond to pest infestations of potential quarantine significance to Canada, following the guidelines and procedures developed under the auspices of the IPPC.

Risk assessment is the responsibility of the Plant Health Risk Assessment (PHRA) Unit of the Science Division. The PHRA Unit has two primary functions: coordination of national plant health surveillance, and risk assessment and technical advice. Three entomologists, three plant pathologists and a weed biologist conduct plant health pest risk assessments for the CFIA. All pest risk assessments are conducted in accordance with IPPC standards following the guidelines established in ISPM 11 (now ISPM 11 [2004]: Pest risk analysis for quarantine pests, including analysis of environmental risks and living modified organisms) and using terminology established in the IPPC glossary (ISPM 5: Glossary of phytosanitary terms). The unit completes 30-50 pest risk assessments a year, including both commodity-based risk assessments and pest-specific risk assessments. The level of detail and the complexity of the assessments varies depending on the urgency or importance of the issue and the depth of knowledge available at the time. The unit also undertakes to provide pest fact sheets, pest alerts and technical input to survey planning or policy-making.

Pest risk assessment within the CFIA

Pest risk assessments are undertaken by the CFIA for the usual reasons, as described in ISPM 11, namely when there is a new pest situation either in Canada or abroad that has implications for Canada, or when there is a new trade situation that presents pest risks not previously addressed. Examples of pest-specific risk assessments undertaken recently include a risk assessment for Phytophthora ramorum, the organism associated with sudden oak death in the United States, and a risk assessment for Anoplophora glabripennis, the Asian longhorned beetle. The latter pest risk assessment was undertaken as a result of interceptions of live insects in packing materials at Canadian and American ports. The CFIA recently undertook a pest risk assessment for Cabomba caroliniana, an aquatic weed from Asia, when it was reported for the first time in Canada in a southern Ontario lake.

New trade situations also sometimes result in a requirement for a pest risk assessment. Every year the CFIA receives requests for permission to import new commodities or familiar commodities from new sources. It has a policy of requiring a pest risk assessment prior to the importation of any commodity that has not previously been imported or that is being imported from a particular place for the first time. Rapidly changing trade patterns, new industry practices and global marketing have resulted in a increase in both the volume and variety of trade worldwide. Canada is no exception. The CFIA has recently received requests to import products ranging from spruce logs harvested in Siberia to earthworms from central Europe and fresh compost from Cuba.

Commodity-based pest risk assessments are completed following the guidelines of ISPM 11 for virtually all types of plants and plant products, ranging from fresh fruits or live plants to wood products. Increasingly, the PHRA Unit has undertaken risk assessments of new types of plant-based products, including compost, new horticultural species not previously grown in Canada, and a wider and wider variety of crop kinds, both for planting and for consumption. Pest-specific risk assessments are similarly varied, addressing all types of organisms associated with plants or plant products, including invertebrates such as insects, mites and nematodes, and pathogens such as fungi, bacteria and viruses. With the addition of a weed biologist to the unit in 2001, the CFIA is now better able to address the risk of weeds, either intentionally imported for horticultural or agricultural purposes, or as contaminants of another intended import.

Regardless of the type of commodity or the kind of pest addressed, the same basic principles apply in the risk assessment. In order for an organism to be a pest, it must first be introduced, then become established, and then do something undesirable in its new habitat. Pests as diverse as Helicobasidium mompa, which causes violet root rot on a wide variety of hosts in Asia, and Callidiellum rufipenne, which is a wood-boring beetle also from Asia, have been addressed by the CFIA and its partners using the same pest risk assessment process.

Traditional pest risk assessments

In the past, most of the focus of the IPPC and subsequently of national plant protection organizations has been on pests of agriculture, with pests of commercial forestry becoming a greater concern in recent years. Classic examples of pest risk assessments undertaken by the CFIA in the recent past include those for swede midge and strawberry plants from the United Kingdom.

Swede midge (Contarinia nasturtii), a European and Asian pest of crucifers, was discovered for the first time in Ontario in 2001, necessitating a pest-specific risk assessment. The pest risk assessment concluded that this insect could cause economic damage if it became established widely in Canada. It is therefore considered a pest of quarantine significance and a national survey has been undertaken to determine the extent of the pest’s distribution.

The pest risk assessment on strawberry plants from the United Kingdom was undertaken as a result of an importer’s request for permission to import commercial quantities of tissue-cultured plantlets. Information was provided by phytosanitary authorities in the United Kingdom. The pest risk assessment concluded that several viruses of quarantine significance to Canada could be imported with unregulated strawberry plants from the United Kingdom, but that phytosanitary measures could be undertaken to satisfactorily mitigate the risk.

The Phytophthora ramorum example

Because of the diverse nature of issues addressed by the risk assessment process in the CFIA, and the small workforce available, the PHRA Unit has adopted a policy of seeking expertise outside the unit and forming partnerships wherever possible to provide the expertise and breadth of knowledge necessary to accomplish its goals. The Canadian risk assessment for P. ramorum demonstrates the team approach. At the time that the pest risk assessment request was received, very little technical information was available about the organism. We knew it was causing very significant damage, at least in California; it appeared to have both horticultural and forestry impacts as well as environmental impacts that would not easily be quantified; there was a high level of public and political awareness; and we had no previous experience with a parallel situation. It was evident from the start that the CFIA would require outside expertise to address this issue successfully.

Given the information needs for a risk assessment under ISPM 11, we required knowledge of Phytophthora biology and its effects on its hosts, but we also required information about the hosts present in Canada, including their susceptibility to the pest, their prevalence and distribution, and their economic and environmental significance. Furthermore, we needed to understand which pathways could be means of spread and what trade occurred for these commodities. We also sought assistance and tools for predicting both distribution and significance of P. ramorum.

While the CFIA was able to contribute expertise in risk assessment and the legal authority to enact quarantine regulations, the Canadian Forest Service (CFS) contributed a research capacity, forest pathology and species modelling expertise and a volume of baseline data on host species abundance and distribution. The P. ramorum risk assessment was completed only through the generous sharing of information and resources both between partners in the CFIA and CFS, and even more significantly, through the contributions of scientists, biologists and forest managers throughout Canada and internationally. This was the first truly collaborative risk assessment released jointly by the CFIA and CFS. It is anticipated that future risk assessments will be completed jointly in this manner because our experience has been that partnerships of this type contribute significantly to the quality and acceptance of the resulting risk assessment and subsequent quarantine policies, particularly when addressing complex issues where the pest is relatively unknown, and many economic sectors and natural environments may be affected.

Other non-traditional pest risk assessments

With increasing frequency, the CFIA has used the pest risk assessment process to address nontraditional issues. Examples include:

In each of these diverse cases, the pest risk assessment process was successfully used to identify areas of concern, the potential for successful establishment of new organisms and the magnitude of the impact that could result. In some cases, the assessment has demonstrated clearly that plant health concerns could reasonably be anticipated and that the IPPC, and hence the CFIA plant health programme, are appropriate mechanisms for addressing these risks. In other cases, the pest risk assessment has been a useful means of communicating concerns to other agencies.


A risk assessment of fanwort was undertaken by the CFIA in consultation with experts in the province of Ontario and in universities. Importation of this aquatic plant for use in aquaria has resulted in its establishment in at least one Ontario lake in recent years. The pest risk assessment concluded that introduction and establishment elsewhere was very likely. Economic and environmental impacts have been experienced in other countries where fanwort has been introduced and the pest risk assessment concluded that similar effects could be anticipated in Canada and would include effects on native plant communities, including wild rice, with subsequent effects on water quality, water levels and aquatic animals. The pest risk assessment has served as a useful tool in the discussion of mandates and responsibilities among government departments and for alerting local authorities and jurisdictions to the risks presented.

Fig. 1: A risk assessment of the emerald ash borer (Agrilus planipennis) involved collaboration between Canadian agencies.

Canadian Food Inspection Agency

Earthworm compost

The risk assessment on Cuban compost was completed according to ISPM 11, as a commodity-based risk assessment. Partners in this effort included the PHRA Unit of the CFIA and the corresponding CFIA Animal Health Risk Assessment Unit. Researchers in Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, universities and provincial departments of agriculture were consulted and contributed expertise. To begin, a very complete description of the compost-making process was necessary, including what it was made from, how it was made, where it was made etc. Potential contaminants associated with each of these inputs were identified and their likelihood of surviving the composting process was assessed. Overall, the pest risk assessment identified various plant, animal and human pathogens that could be introduced in imported compost from Cuba and concluded that the product presented an unacceptable risk for Canada.

Emerald ash borer

A final example is again a forest pest, the emerald ash borer (Agrilus planipennis). The risk assessment was initiated after the discovery of the pest in an area bordering Michigan (United States) and Ontario (Canada) in the summer of 2002. Like the P. ramorum PRA, this was a collaborative effort between the CFIA and the CFS, with contributions from the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, the City of Windsor and scientists from both Canada and the United States. After completion of the pest risk assessment, which concluded that an unacceptable level of risk was presented by this situation, the CFIA and its partner agencies formed a task force to undertake regulatory action and communicate with stakeholders.

The partnership approach has been successful, not only in risk assessment, but also in risk management and communication, with the Canadian Forest Service playing an ever more active role in decision-making and implementation of policy with respect to quarantine pests that affect forestry.

Canadian Forest Service invasive alien species programme

The CFS, a branch of Natural Resources Canada, is a federal agency with a national and international focus and a mandate to promote sustainable forest management, collect and integrate forestry information, and conduct scientific research in support of forest policy development. One area of growing interest for the CFS is that of invasive alien species.

The CFS invasive alien species programme incorporates six main themes:

Much of this work is done in collaboration with the CFIA. Over the past several years a joint programme has developed whereby the CFS provides assistance to the CFIA in a number of key areas:

One mechanism by which this is accomplished is through the formation of interagency task forces. These are established in response to new alien pest emergencies. They involve science and regulatory agencies of both federal and provincial governments as well as affected municipal governments and industry. Within the scope of forest pests, this approach has been successfully used in response to:

Canadian Forest Service and the international community

In addition to working closely with the CFIA, the CFS is becoming increasingly involved with international partners such as the North American Plant Protection Organization (NAPPO) and the IPPC. Working with NAPPO, the CFS provided science research support in the development of the North American wood packaging standard which led to the development of the IPPC international standard, ISPM 15: Guidelines for regulating wood packaging material in international trade. For example, a research study was recently conducted by the CFS examining the effectiveness of heat treatment for fungi in wood, addressing a specific issue related to ISPM 15.

A further development of this science support role has been the formation of an international body, the International Forestry Quarantine Research Group (IFQRG). The mission of this group is to provide a mechanism where critical forestry quarantine issues can be addressed through discussion and collaborative research. It serves to bring together scientists and phytosanitary officials to foster multidisciplinary approaches to forest quarantine-related problems of global significance. The IFQRG serves several main functions:

IFQRG draws its membership from both the science and phytosanitary regulatory communities, currently in more than ten countries around the world. It is formally endorsed by the Interim Commission on Phytosanitary Measures and links to the nine regional plant protection organizations through the IPPC. The group is closely affiliated with a working group of the International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO), the recently formed IUFRO Unit 7.03.12, “Alien invasive species and international trade”. It is hoped that through the activities of IFQRG, phytosanitary issues of global importance can be addressed and research efforts applied where necessary. As a communication tool, a Web site has been established (

Benefits and challenges of the partnership approach

The lessons learned in the course of dealing with this wide range of issues have been diverse. It has been our experience, however, that there are benefits to all partners concerned. Partnerships result in improved pest risk assessment capacity and broadened expertise; these in turn result in a greater credibility on the part of the regulatory body and a greater understanding between partners of the challenges faced by each. This shared responsibility is well viewed by stakeholders, including industry groups, the public at large and non-governmental agencies, and results in a greater acceptance of decisions taken and improved cooperation among stakeholders. Forming partnerships between agencies has provided both organizations with the capacity to contribute to the other’s field of endeavour while developing a unified approach to a wide variety of pests and situations.

Undertaking risk assessments or making quarantine decisions in partnership with other organizations, of course, presents challenges. The process can be both slower and more expensive initially, but with time these costs are reduced and efficiencies develop. Different mandates or legislative authorities between organizations can lead to difficulties that require negotiation to overcome and challenge accessibility to funds. Overall, however, the benefits of such an approach outweigh these costs.

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