Digital certificates to boost controls over spread of plant pests and diseases

e-Phyto set to enhance secure information-sharing between countries and cut costs

19 March 2015, Rome -The creation of a new global electronic certification system that will help curb the spread of plant pests and diseases through international trade in a more  secure and cost-effective way has been approved by representatives from 181 countries.

The Commission on Phytosanitary Measures (CPM), the governing body of the International Plant Protection Convention agreed to develop a global system of electronic phytosanitary certificates, known as e-Phyto, FAO said today.

The decision means that the complex, bureaucratic process whereby millions of paper phytosanitary certificates are created, printed, and exchanged between countries each year, will eventually be replaced by an online electronic system.

The current paper certificates serve to reassure importers that plant products including food have been inspected and found to be free of the kinds of pests that could devastate their local economy by harming agriculture or the environment. It is an essential effort, but costly in terms of time and resources.

A central hub

e-Phyto is designed to eventually replace paper certificates entirely. Envisaged at its heart is a central hub, which will receive on a voluntary basis certificates from National Plant Protection Organisations (NPPOs) in exporting countries and makes them available to the NPPOs of importing countries.

The hub provides a simple and secure method for exchange, eliminating the need for countries to negotiate exchange protocols bilaterally with each and every trading partner.

"Security and confidentiality are crucial concerns that have been thoroughly addressed in the system design," Peter Thomson, the IPPC's Bureau lead for the e-Phyto development, told CPM participants meeting in Rome this week.

"Secure electronic exchange of certificates between NPPOs will eliminate problems some countries currently experience with the use of fraudulent certificates by importers or exporters," Thomson added.

The hub model is expected to be a lot less costly than existing paper-based methods and will significantly strengthen global harmonization and adherence to the IPPC standards for phytosanitary certification.

"There'll be one set of rules," Thomson said, "and one way to interpret them."

e-Phyto is expected to simplify and reduce the cost of global trade, increase the ability of countries to identify items that pose a high risk and reduce the potential for fraud and hence collateral damage.

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.

Support for developing countries

The CPM has also endorsed a request to the Standards and Trade Development Facility of the World Trade Organization to provide funds for the initial establishment of e-Phyto. The aim is to support developing countries that do not currently have the capacity to engage in e-Phyto.

The IPPC is planning a pilot project to build capacity in developing countries to enable them to join e-Phyto on a gradual basis.

Several countries are already using some form of electronic certification, including Australia, Canada, Kenya, the Republic of Korea, the Netherlands, New Zealand and the United States.

Photo: ©FAO/M. Namundjebo
Dates being packed for export in Namibia.