The tricky task of protecting plants in a globalized age

International Plant Protection Convention wraps up annual meeting – two phytosanitary standards revised and updated

12 April 2013, Rome - Odds are, today you ate something that came from another hemisphere. A mind-boggling $1.1 trillion worth of agricultural products are traded internationally each year, with food items accounting for 82 percent of the total.

And where fruit or plants can travel, so too can less-savory characters. Fruit fly eggs hidden in the skins of oranges go unseen. Beetles burrow into wooden shipping pallets and escape detection. Fungal spores worm their way between the seams of metal shipping containers and so travel radically farther than the wind might ever blow them.

If they are not dealt with when they arrive at their destination, the consequences can be dire: every year global crop yields are reduced by somewhere between 20 and 40 percent due to plant pests and diseases, according to the FAO-based Secretariat of the International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC). Precise data are not available, but a significant number of these plant pests were introduced via international trade.

It's not just food production that is at risk. Forests across the globe — relied on by 1.6 billion people in some way for their livelihoods — have been hard hit as well.

In addition to the more notorious "usual suspects" — Mediterranean fruit flies, wheat rust, African Army worms — a veritable panoply of culprits are damaging crops and undermining farmers' livelihoods around the globe: Eggplant Borers, Cassava Bacterial blight, Potato Cyst Nematodes, the European Grapevine Moth, and giant, rice-eating snails of the Pomacea genus. The list is both long and colorful.

Beyond the immediate impacts they have on crop yields and food security, there are other consequences.

Dealing with pest introductions and outbreaks costs governments, farmers and consumers billions of dollars every year. Once pest species are established their eradication is often  impossible, and controlling them takes up a significant percentage of the cost of producing food.

Which is why the IPPC was created.

Standards a key tool

With the volume of trade in agricultural products picking up steam, in 1952 the international community came together to establish a mechanism through which countries  could work together to prevent plant pests and diseases from spreading via agricultural commerce.

The IPPC serves as a network for information sharing between countries on pest occurrences, active control measures, phytosanitary regulations and best-practices — supporting their efforts to protect plant resources and trade safely. Other IPPC core activities include implementation of standards through capacity development and trade dispute settlement.

The main IPPC activity is the formulation of science-based, internationally-agreed standards which detail how plants and plant products should be handled during trade, known as International Standards for Phytosanitary Measures, or ISPMs.

Fifty ISPMs have been developed so far, covering issues ranging from how plant products or wooden packing materials should be treated prior to export, to recommended procedures and methodologies used by agricultural inspectors, to procedures for conducting  risk analysis and required formats for phytosanitary certificates. Another 90 topics are under consideration.

"We now live in a globalized and incredibly interconnected world, full of opportunities for plant pests and diseases to spread from country to country. Reducing risks and preventing or minimizing that spread is far more cost-effective than trying to eradicate or manage an outbreak after-the-fact," says Craig Fedchock, IPPC Secretariat Coordinator.

"Doing so, we protect farmers from the economic devastation of pest and disease outbreaks, shield industries and consumers from the costs of control and eradication, and prevent the loss of biodiversity — as well as help maintain viable, well-functioning ecosystems," Fedchock adds.

Updates for two standards - Sea containers under the spotlight

This week the IPPC's governing body, the Commission on Phytosanitary Measures (CPM), approved two revised ISPMs during its  annual meeting (8-12 April 2013).

The first was an update to existing ISPM 11: Pest risk analysis for quarantine pests including analysis of environmental risks and living modified organisms which adds detailed guidance on how authorities should undertake risk analysis for determining if a imported plant might be a pest to cultivated or wild plants, whether they should be regulated, and how to identify phytosanitary meas1ures that reduce the risk to an acceptable level.

Additionally, ISPM 15: Regulation of wood package material in international trade, was revised to provide more specific guidance on approved treatments of wood packaging material.

The CPM also agreed to continue moving ahead on a new ISPM aimed at reducing the transmission of plant pests and diseases via sea containers. (Shipping containers account for around 90 percent of all of the goods transported into the world, with about 5 million in transit by sea at any given moment.)

CPM members also discussed options for improving monitoring and pest controls for international shipments of grain.

Photo: U.S. Department of Agriculture (
Some $1.1 trillion worth of agricultural products are traded internationally each year.