Forging common ground is essential
Making plant health a permanent priority

There are compelling economic, social, political and environmental drivers for a global response to plant health challenges, based on science and international phytosanitary standards, writes Ron van der Ploeg.

Dr. Arop Deng, integration and support team leader of which the International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC) Secretariat believes that the International Year of Plant Health (IYPH) 2020 is a once in a lifetime opportunity to raise global awareness on how protecting plant health can help end hunger, reduce poverty, protect biodiversity and the environment and boost economic development.

How it all began… Close up of an aphid looking into camera

The voracious appetite of microscopic aphids devastating vines in 1881 was the catalyst that forms the phytosanitary standards which the International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC) champion today. Phylloxera vastatrix was the bug to spark the first international agreement nearly 139 years ago, which describes measures to be taken against plant pests. What followed was the International Convention for the Protection of Plants developed by the International Institute for Agriculture in 1929 and the IPPC that came into force in 1952, replacing the earlier international agreements in the field of plant protection. The Uruguay Round of trade negotiations (1986-1994) and the subsequent establishment of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1995 marked important milestones for the concept of the trans-boundary movement of plant and plant product. In 1997, the Commission on Phytosanitary Measures (CPM) was established. Considering its timeline, IPPC has come a long way.

Globalisation, trade and climate change

Meanwhile, insect pests (phytophagous and vector type ones) and pathogens are a global concern for the world’s plants. All countries are affected, and most are potential sources of new invasive insect pests. Commenting on the major factors implicated in the spread of pests and diseases, Deng says, “These factors include globalisation and trade as promoters of increased movement of people and goods across various countries and continents. In addition, climate change that impacts the distribution of flora and fauna in various ecosystems, the use of production systems that are not environmentally friendly, as well as the reduced resistance and resilience of plants to pests and diseases are among the major contributors to the introduction and spread of pests and diseases.”

The financial toll of pests and diseases is massive. On a global scale, plant pests alone are estimated to cause annual crop loss of 10- 16% while pests and diseases are estimated at 20- 40%, according to FAO estimates.

Dr. Arop Deng, integration and support team leader of which the International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC) Secretariat

Dr. Arop Deng

“In terms of economic value, plant diseases alone cause a loss of USD 220 billion in trade on agricultural products annually, while USD 70 billion in loss is attributed to invasive insects alone. In 2017, the Colorado potato beetle, Leptinotarsa decemlineata, a lethal pest affecting potatoes, caused USD 3.2 million of economic loss in China. In 2016, an analysis of 1,300 known invasive pests and pathogens had an estimated potential cost of global agriculture standing at more than USD 540 billion annually. These monetary indicators are even more significant if we consider that plants account for over 80% of human food,” notes Deng.

Climate change affects plant health and vice versa, he stresses. “Plants are essential for life on earth. There is a mutual relationship between plant health and climate change as they affect each other irreversibly.

It is well known that plants provide most of the oxygen we breathe. If they are affected or infected, the supply greatly reduces, leading to ozone depletion and rising temperatures. This becomes a recipe for climatic catastrophes: unpredictable cycles of flood, drought, cyclones, El Niño, among others, which affect resilience, livelihood and socio-economic development of rural communities mostly in developing countries,” says Deng.

Plant pests may be easily transported from one country to another in our globalised and interconnected world where countries mutually exchange enormous flows of people and commodities daily.

Deng adds: “Similarly, eradication of poverty and hunger are Objectives 1 and 2 of the Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development. The IPPC community is about to endorse the IPPC Strategic Framework 2020-2030 during CPM-15, in March and April 2020. The UN General Assembly declared 2020 the International Year of Plant Health. Considering the figures I mentioned previously and these international initiatives, it is easy to deduce that the political and social impact of plant pests is already evident to the international community and this translates into national legislators addressing this issue eventually.”

Political agenda

Plant health can never be high enough on the agenda of politicians. It should always be a national priority, “but the political discourse at the national – or at the EU level is entirely in the hands of country representatives, be it heads of state or government or parliamentarians at any level,” adds Deng.

Plant health has its roots in science. Deng says, “Forging common ground is essential to preserve the world’s plants from pests. The national, regional and international harmonisation of actions to prevent pest spread through the implementation of IPPC Standards is a science-based approach. It has always been a priority for all IPPC Contracting Parties, 183 currently. The hundred-plus International Standards for Phytosanitary Measures (ISPMs) are hard proof of the long-standing global commitment to prevent pest outbreaks.”

Prominence and priority

A pro-active pest management approach requires constant vigilance at every level. Growers, traders, gardeners, foresters and farmers all need to be on the lookout in the field for the first signs of disease. The question arises how IPPC, finding itself on top of the pyramid, can give the issue the prominence and priority it deserves?

Deng says, “IPPC – the Inter­national Plant Protection Convention – is an international treaty that aims to secure coordinated, effective action to prevent and control the introduction and spread of pests of plants and plant products. The IPPC is part of the Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) Agreement as a result of the Uruguay Round of Multilateral Trade Negotiations. Besides the ISPMs, the IPPC Secretariat has coordinated the development and published 18 guides, 24 factsheets, nine brochures and ten training kits to provide its 183 contracting parties with the necessary tools to prevent the outbreak of plant pests and diseases.

Furthermore, the IPPC Secretariat is actively building phytosanitary capacity through training workshops and seminars, so that the IPPC community can perform phytosanitary functions effectively to make trade sustainable and safe.”

One other way is to create awareness among the stakeholders (growers, consumers, traders, civil society organisations, academia governments and public) on the importance of plant health so that each one of them can voluntarily play their role. “The IPPC Secretariat is doing just that in collaboration with National and Regional Plant Protection Organisations (NPPOs and RPPOs). Internationally, the IPPC community needs to continue forging strong alliances with its networks, NPPOs, RPPOs, FAO’s offices and partner organisations to continue working together to facilitate the implementation of the Convention, its standards and CPM recommendations,” says Deng.

‘On a global scale, plant pests alone are estimated to cause annual crop loss of 10- 16%’

Difficult but not impossible

To minimise further introductions and spread of devastating pests and diseases, the eradication of plant pests and diseases in territories where they were not detected previously is a challenging but not impossible task. Deng says, “For that reason, prevention is paramount. And the role of the IPPC and its international phytosanitary standards become critically essential. I do believe that promoting good practices amongst citizens and travellers is also very important to attain this goal. Training people to pay attention when travelling or buying phytosanitary products online is crucial to avoid pests spreading worldwide and minimise the risk of their introduction into new areas. Building capacity of the plant protection community to effectively implement standards, empowering academia and research organisations to produce relevant technologies and tools for prevention and control are essential parts of practices to prevent the introduction of pests and diseases into new areas.”

Devil of a dilemma

To resolve the dilemma between best-protecting plant health while facilitating trade, Deng thinks that finding a balance between preventing pest introduction and safe trade is at the core of the IPPC mandate. Deng says, “Cooperation at a national, regional and global level is of vital importance to meet halfway and assure plant health while facilitating trade. As we know, many countries depend on trading large quantities of plants and agricultural products, such as grain, fruit, flowers and vegetables. Yet trade could introduce and spread plant pests and diseases and as such, threaten natural plant resources. Effectively implementing the IPPC and its international standards for phytosanitary measures can help find that steadiness. The IPPC provides globally harmonised guidance for countries to manage pest risks, thus effectively ensuring safe and efficient trade.”

The concept of Coordinated Border Management (CBM) espoused by the World Customs Organisation (WCO) and its Permanent Technical Committee (PTC) composed of representatives from Codex Alimentarius Commission, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), International Organisation for Migration (IOM), International Animal Health Organisation (OIE) and IPPC Secretariat provides a partial answer to the dilemma. Besides the promotion of risk management referred to above, the use of electronic documentation and strengthening interagency collaboration can go a long way in striking an amicable balance between these two global activities.

Great occasion

2020 is the International Year of Plant Health which coincides with the introduction of the EU’s new plant health regulations and the plant passport. “The IPPC Secretariat welcomes any legislation that can support plant health. Nevertheless, this duty falls upon governments, ultimately. In this sense, the IPPC Secretariat maintains its objective role by providing the best, science-based international standards for phytosanitary measures. The designated bodies, as well as citizens, will review any other initiative that escapes the IPPC mandate, eventually.”

Personally, Deng is looking forward to the theme year. “The IYPH is a great occasion for the global plant health community to show the world why protecting plant health is an important undertaking and how plants are affecting our lives. Life on earth would be simply impossible without healthy plants providing us with oxygen and food and other necessities.”

With two launch events in Rome and New York, a Ministerial Segment at the CPM- 15, an International Conference in Helsinki, World Food Day celebration focusing on the year and a closing event of the year, both in Rome, the crux of the awareness-raising campaign on plant health will have been achieved. Everyone has a crucial role to play in 2020. People, civil society, producers, traders, consumers, travellers, academia and government, can all take actions daily to reduce the risk of pests and diseases introduction in their territories. Farmers will learn how to monitor better and report the occurrence of pests and together with agribusiness employees will adopt the environmentally friendly and technologically advanced practice to control pests. People from the private sector will be more engaged with the development and promotion of safer global plant health protection products. Countries and governments will be expected to invest more in phytosanitary research and keep plant health high on their national development agenda, consistent with IPPC standards and procedures.”