Borders without barriers — or a ‘headache’ of phytosanitary compliance?

Pest and disease risks are frequently associated with plant cuttings produced in offshore facilities.

The movement of plants and plant products globally involves an ever-increasing number of countries, product ranges and volumes. A situation in which more pests are being intercepted or introduced. As a result, governments are rolling out phytosanitary measures that are becoming stricter by the day — causing ‘headaches’ for ornamental plant breeders, propagators and ornamentals growers worldwide.

FCI sat down with John van Ruiten, director of Naktuinbouw, the Inspection Service for Horticulture in the Netherlands, for the October 2021 edition of FloraCulture International, to find out how challenging the situation is for his organisation and the industry at large.

FCI: What tendencies do you see?

John van Ruiten is director of Naktuinbouw, the Inspection Service for Horticulture in the Netherlands.

John van Ruiten: “Very rapidly, phytosanitary measures for the global trade of seeds and plants, and plant products marketed worldwide are increasing and becoming more strict. Individual countries and regions want to protect their natural environment, biodiversity, economy, and growers against new pathogens coming in. That is not new, it is from all days, but as knowledge and information about these pathogens and the threat they pose are increasing, policies to keep diseases out intensify everywhere.

And the need for protection becomes greater because there are societal and environmental concerns in almost all countries on chemical crop protection. All governments have nowadays policies and laws to bring down the amount of crop protection compounds used.

Another point is that new developed, highly sensitive DNA-based technologies for detecting the presence of pathogens are broadly available. On the one hand, there are valuable instruments available for growers to check plant health, but on the other hand, these test possibilities lead to new rules and standards for import and export.

If we want to cross borders in the international trade system of flowers, plants and seeds – not barriers – there is no other option than compliance with the increasing international phytosanitary standards. That means the material must be produced in ‘clean systems’ and, when marketed, must be (certified) free of harmful pathogens.”

Which concerns do you have?

“Naktuinbouw’s view is, of course, from an EU perspective. However, many former quarantine diseases regulated as pests last year have not disappeared. The attention to keep crops pathogen-free is as crucial as before, especially in the propagation phase of seeds and plants. An even bigger number of relevant viruses, viroids, bacteria and fungi are recorded. Users of propagating materials require tested pathogen-free material. And, if seeds or plants sold to customers are not healthy, the supplier will be held responsible and accountable.

Inspecting potted plants at Naktuinbouw.

A new list of dangerous quarantine diseases for the EU is available. In the recent 2019 EU legislation, the import requirements have intensified. More and more tests will be required before material can come into the Union. Some crops, mainly plants of fruit crops and ornamental tree/shrub species – the so-called ‘high-risk crops – cannot be imported anymore, unless Post Entry Quarantine is applied.”

What is Naktuinbouw doing?

“First of all, we are increasingly focusing on bringing new information about potential disease problems to the horticultural sector. We develop possibilities for rapid recognition and early detection. We think that early warning systems and better access to globally available information are crucial. Often information is somewhere available but not yet open to us all. Better exchange of information and data is essential.

In association with phytosanitary authorities, organisations and research institutes, we strive to ‘unlock’ that information. We develop and implement new rapid DNA test techniques and offer them as a service to growers. These techniques must be sensitive but should also recognise the difference between ‘dead or alive’ findings of the targeted DNA. An important question is on the biological relevance of what you find in tested samples. And we offer diagnostic services and training courses to companies.”

What can companies do themselves?

“Very important for producers, wherever their location, is to make a risk assessment on the possible occurrence of disease problems. Not only in their company itself, but also in the region of production. Not only in their commodities but also in related species. And to apply systematically a prevention and hygiene system, combined with regular monitoring, scouting and testing of crops. Only bring in new material (varieties/plants from elsewhere) in your production system once you are sure that you have evaluated and tested it. And if you have ensured yourself that it comes from a reliable source. Every company should have a crop protection specialist or have access to a person with appropriate knowledge. Eliminate as many risks as possible before you even start production.

Airfreight cuttings are ready for inspection at Naktuinbouw.

Naktuinbouw offers, for example, its Elite programme, which contains these features and helps propagators to work in conformity with these high standards. And education and awareness amongst company employees, that is to say, all people working with crops are important. Use their ability to rapidly recognise problems once they occur in an early stage.
Improved tracking and tracing systems to quickly determine where and when possibly infected material was produced or marketed is crucial to contain problems.
And for companies, another point of attention is to divide the production over more locations if possible to spread risks.”

And the sector?

“Top priority should be on breeding and selecting varieties that are better, stronger and are resistant or more tolerant to harmful diseases. This focus is not a task for breeders only, but research institutes developing techniques and marker technology (identifying genes) and resistance tests in many ornamental crops. I also hope that funding agencies, including governments, will understand that the international ornamentals sector needs these investments and financial support to make these breeding developments possible and survive in the future.

If the goal in ten years is to have more resistant crops, much investment is needed. And the possibility to use new breeding techniques such as Crispr-cas will help us. There is a task for EU governments to allow these NBT’s and stop regulating them as GMO’s. And create a global level playing field.

And possibly, in the end, the entire value chain up to the end consumer should accept that natural products are produced and not industrial ones.”

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