Keeping plant pests and diseases at bay: experts focus on global measures

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

16 March 2015, Rome - How to prevent insects, bacteria, viruses and weeds from infesting fruit, vegetable and other plant and food consignments and then spreading across the world is the focus of a four-day gathering of international experts which began at FAO today.

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 the 181 member countries.

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 improve the effectiveness of their National Plant Protection Organizations.

The purpose of the standards is to minimize the risks of plant pests circulating across borders and regions in the increasingly vast context of global trade.

"A staggering $1.1 trillion worth of agricultural products are traded internationally each year, with food accounting for more than 80 per cent of the total. In this more and more globalized world, we need to increase our efforts to protect food security and the environment, and ensure safe trade from pests of plants," FAO Deputy Director General Natural Resources, Maria Helena Semedo, said.

"A failure to monitor the spread of plant pests and diseases can have disastrous consequences on agricultural production and food security for millions of poor farmers," Semedo said addressing the meeting.

"Learning from past experiences, preventions are the first line of defense against plant pests and diseases and they have also proven the most cost effective ways," she added.

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.

Getting the packing right

"Once a pest becomes established, it is almost impossible to eradicate and is expensive to manage," said IPPC Coordinator, Craig Fedchock.

Critical to this is the material used to transport plants and other agricultural products to ensure that it does not provide a place for pests to fester.

"Had more been known about the risks associated with solid wood packaging material 35 years ago, millions of dollars could have been saved through a simple inexpensive heat treatment of wooden pallets before their use in international trade," Fedchock said.

He cited the Asian long-horned beetle, which is believed to have spread from Asia to the United States, as well as Canada, Trinidad, and several countries in Europe in untreated solid wood packaging material. The beetles or their larvae feed on leaves, twigs, and barks causing the death of many trees.

Fedchock also noted how in an attempt to eradicate pinewood nematode, the Republic of Korea over the last three decades has spent some $400 million dollars and plans to spend an additional $45 million more in 2015, and in a related measure, has also cut down some 3.5 million trees in recent years. The pinewood nematode, a roundworm that causes pine wilt disease, is thought to have originated from North America, possibly on untreated wood pallets, and introduced elsewhere through trade.

ePhyto - pest control certificates for the digital age

This year's CPM meeting which lasts until Friday, 20 March, is set to deal with the topic of electronic phytosanitary certification, or ePhyto, with participants  discussing and possibly approving the establishment of an ePhyto online hub. This could facilitate the exchange of millions of ePhytos per year resulting in increased efficiencies in port operations, and a reduction in the costs, including environmental, associated with printing and shipping paper certificates.

Also slated during the four-day meeting is a series of side sessions convering topics such as new pest diagnostic technologies.

Photo: ©FAO/Ana Rodriguez
Bactrocera dorsalis, the Oriental fruit fly, is one of world's most destructive agricultural pests.