International plant protection ready for the new century

Unloading rice from Thailand in the port of Conakry, Guinea

The adoption by the FAO Conference in November of revisions to the International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC) promises to have far-reaching effects on trade and food security for both developed and developing countries. The revisions have transformed the Convention from a relatively little-known agreement into an active and important organization with a significant role in international trade.

The Convention, which came into force in 1952 and now has 106 member countries, established the concept that exporting countries have an obligation to protect importing countries by ensuring that the agricultural goods that they export are free from plant pests. A system of certification, based on a model format described in the Convention, has long been the global standard.

Highlights of the revisions include:

  • the establishment of a Commission on Phytosanitary Measures
  • recognition of the Secretariat, located in FAO's Plant Protection Service (AGPP)
  • recognition of standard-setting responsibilities
  • the designation of an official national contact point
  • establishing pest risk analysis as the basis for technically justified measures
  • improved dispute-settlement mechanism
  • recognition of regulated non-quarantine pests
  • clarification of the relationship to other international agreements
  • clarification of obligations for risk analysis, surveillance and information sharing.
  • the possible membership of the European Community

Plant quarantine regulations continue to be the most important non-tariff barriers to the free movement of agricultural products. The justification for such barriers has often been absent or dubious. Under the revised IPPC, mechanisms are identified to provide justifications, and the responsibilities of countries are emphasized while respecting their sovereign right to take measures to protect their agriculture and wild flora from new pest incursions.

The IPPC took on new importance when the World Trade Organization nominated it as one of three key international standard-setting organizations under the Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (the SPS Agreement). This agreement, which came into force for most member governments in 1995, recognizes a country's right to protect plant, animal, and human health with restrictions on trade that are deemed necessary to provide an appropriate level of protection. However, these restrictions must be based on international standards or scientifically justified.

The IPPC was cited in the SPS Agreement as being responsible for international standard-setting in the area of plant health. In order to meet these obligations, the FAO Conference in 1993 established a IPPC Secretariat, located in the Plant Protection Service (AGPP), and interim standard-setting procedures. In November 1997, the Conference went further, accepting the need to establish a Commission to supercede FAO governing bodies as the mechanism for standard approval and direction-setting in the IPPC.

Developing countries, in particular, are highly dependent upon the import and export of raw and semiprocessed agricultural products. They not only need to have access to commodities and markets, but also to be competitive and, under the IPPC, to be able to adequately protect themselves from damaging pests without unduly restricting trade. It is a vitally important balance which is now strongly linked to international standards and, where plant health is concerned, with the activities of the IPPC.

The Interim Commission on Phytosanitary Measures is expected to convene at FAO headquarters in the autumn of 1998. It will be open to all FAO members.

30 January 1998

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