Plants vital to human diets but face growing risks from pests and diseases

Phytosanitary standards for trade in plants and plant products come under review

4 April 2016, Rome - Invasive ants that devour crops, or the insidious "olive quick decline syndrome", which scorches leaves and withers branches, are just some of the multitude of plant-health threats that are spreading more easily in today's increasingly globalized world.

International experts began gathering at FAO today to focus on the most effective ways to prevent insects, bacteria, viruses and weeds from infesting fruit, vegetable and other plant and food consignments that are traded daily across the world.

The annual meeting of the Commission on Phytosanitary Measures (CPM), the governing body of the International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC), brings together senior plant health specialists from 182 contracting parties as well as a number of other international organizations and the private sector.

The theme chosen this year, "Plant Health for Food Security", stresses the link between the international community's commitment to eradicate hunger by 2030 and the critical role played by plants in human nourishment.

"Recently we have seen greater attention being paid to plant diseases and pests of plants, but more needs to be done on how to raise awareness and on how to sustain or improve plant health," said FAO Deputy Director-General (Operations) Daniel Gustafson in his opening address to the meeting.

He underscored how the work of the IPPC, which aims to safeguard plant health, preserve biodiversity and facilitate trade, is in line with many of the Sustainable Development Goals endorsed by the international community last year.

Some $1.1 trillion worth of agricultural products are traded internationally each year, with food accounting for more than 80 per cent of the total.

At the same time FAO estimates that between 20 and 40 percent of global crop yields are reduced each year due to the damage wrought by plant pests and diseases. Many of these spread across borders through the movement of goods, finding new habitats in which to breed or environments in which to fester also due to the effects of climate change.

The CPM's task is, among other things, to review and establish International Standards on Phytosanitary Measures that govern how plants and plant products should be handled during movement and transport. It also endorses ways to support developing countries to improve the effectiveness of their National Plant Protection Organizations.

Once pests infest a particular geographical area and become established they are almost impossible to eradicate and are expensive to manage. As in the case of invasive ants, which pose a particular threat to island communities and developing countries, it can also result in an increasing use of pesticides that are hazardous to both human health and the environment.

The purpose of the standards is to minimize the risks of pests of plants circulating across borders and regions in the increasingly vast context of global trade. Examples include fruit flies that lay their eggs in the skins of oranges meant for export, beetles that burrow into wooden shipping pallets, or the bacterium Xylella fastidiosa, which causes "olive quick decline syndrome" and is believed to have arrived in the Mediterranean region through imported ornamental plants.

This year's CPM meeting, which lasts until Friday, 8 April, is also set to deal specifically with the increasing pests risks associated with sea containers and whether an International Standard for Phytosanitary Measure should be developed to address these risks.

Participants will also discuss further development of electronic phytosanitary certification, or ePhyto - the establishment of an online hub was approved at last year's CPM meeting with the purpose to facilitate the exchange of millions of ePhytos per year. This will result in increased efficiencies in port operations, a reduction in fraudulent certification, and a reduction in the costs, including environmental, associated with printing and shipping paper certificates.

Photo: ©FAO/Vladimir Rodas
Fruit flies can lay their eggs in the skins of oranges meant for export.