‘Phytosanitary ambitions succeed or fail with the capacity of the weakest link’

Ralf Lopian is the Chairman of the international steering committee for the 2020 International Year of Plant Health (IYPH), which extends beyond 2020 due to Covid-19. He will be the keynote speaker at AIPH’s virtual International Plant Health Conference on 24 March. In this interview, Lopian highlights plants’ economic, social, and environmental value while sounding the alarm over an ever-increasing threat from pests and diseases. To minimise further introductions and spread of devastating pests and diseases, Lopian urges governments to invest more in surveillance, monitoring and capacity building.

The International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC) has made massive progress from the first international agreement describing measures to be taken against plant pests and diseases in the Convention on Phylloxera vastatrix (grape pylloxera) of 3 November 1881. Following this agreement, the International Convention for the Protection of Plants developed by the International Institute for Agriculture was signed in Rome on 16 April 1929 but failed because only twelve countries ratified it and World War II stopped all international collaboration.

With the creation of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations, the IPPC was developed in 1951 and ratified in the following year. The Uruguay Round of trade negotiations (1986-1994) and the subsequent establishment of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in 1995 led to the revision of the IPPC in 1997. This revision established an IPPC governing body, the Commissions on Phytosanitary Measures (CPM), and the mandate for the development of international phytosanitary standards.

Global problem

Protection for our plants is more critical than ever as insect pests and pathogens are attacking them globally. The problem is growing as a result of globalisation. “Plant pests and diseases can more freely move around the world with the international flow of goods. International travel and the subsequent movement of people have also radically increased the spread of pests and diseases over the past decades,“ says Ralf Lopian, who, next to his role as IYPH steering committee chair, also works for Finland’s Ministery of Agriculture and Forestry.
New pests and diseases appear now in territories where people had never spotted them before, with negative consequences on local ecosystems, agriculture, and food security. “What is more, once established in a new area, plant pests are often impossible to eradicate,” notes Lopian.

When it comes to climate change, there is the indisputable fact that a change in weather patterns affects plant pests’ epidemiology, distribution and impact. “Due to global warming, more pests are not only appearing earlier in the season; but raising temperatures also create new pathways for pests to thrive and spread. Climate change influences the movement of trade flows for agricultural commodities, and threatens both the quality and quantity of crops”, says Lopian.

Economic losses

Pests and diseases are responsible for losses of 20 to 40 per cent of global food production; and trade losses in agricultural products exceeding USD 220 billion every year. “Balancing the impact of climate change, pest occurrences and food production is an unprecedented global challenge for the scientific community as we aim at producing more with fewer resources and degrading soils to feed 9 billion people by 2050”, continues Lopian.

He points to pests and diseases transposed from their endemic ecosystem to a completely new one and have had catastrophic economic impacts using the Fall Armyworm (FAW; Spodoptera frugiperda) as an example. “In 2016, the FAW was introduced into West-Africa and can now be found in almost every African country. Analysis of its economic damages are still investigated, but preliminary assessments find that it can cause USD 6.2 billion worth of damage in maize production alone.”

One of the most dangerous plant bacteria worldwide is Xylella fastidiosa, which emerged in Southern Italy in 2013 and subsequently spread to several other EU countries in the Mediterranean basin.
An EU economic analysis projected that Xylella could cause an average annual economic impact of €5.5 billion in direct production losses, €0.7 billion in resulting trade losses and could cost 300. 000 people their jobs in the agricultural sector alone.

To minimise further introductions and spread of devastating pests and diseases, countries should invest more in surveillance and monitoring, being the pillars under a well-functioning plant health regime.

The global increase in pests and diseases

Global scientific research finds that the growth of phytophagous insects is exponential with 9.5 new species found each year compared to 4.5 per year between 1950- 1975, and most new insects link to nursery stock products. Europe, Italy, France and the UK are the most heavily impacted countries. China is now taking the lead in terms of the origin of imported ‘exotic’ insect pests into the EU.

In Lopian’s view, the situation better describes as ‘an increase in polyphagous pests and diseases’. An increase, he says, is logical. “Because we involuntarily create a beneficial environment for polyphagous species. International trade has become so diverse and manifold that the possibilities for introducing new pests and diseases have been increasing substantially. A polyphagous pest or disease has more potential pathways to be distributed. There are many more hosts to live off, complicating the early detection, surveying, monitoring and eradication of pests and diseases.

This is an evolutionary advantage over monophagous pests and diseases who are much easier found in inspections and can be much easier eradicated once found.”

As to why China is such a hotspot for novel plant pests and diseases, Lopian invites us to look at the bigger picture. “More frequent interceptions of quarantine pests from China does not necessarily mean that the plant health regime in China is weak, but may be a mere result of the explosive increase of trade between China and the EU. And that the EU has, because of this increased trade, analysed and regulated more pests and diseases from Asia.”

Societal values

Again in a broader perspective: protecting the world’s plants for the future means protecting crops’ economic value and protecting our ecosystems and physical and mental health. Plants are the building blocks of life, they provide food, oxygen, medicines and shelter, and are deeply anchored in many populations’ culture and traditions.
People in the Mediterranean basin, for example, strongly identify with olive trees. For them, Xylella fastidiosa wreaking havoc in the region’s olive groves is an epic drama in an iconic landscape. Not only does the dreaded bacteria jeopardise the region’s signature olive industry, the eradication of affected trees frequently leads to eruptions of public protests as locals attach strong cultural meanings to olive trees.

These trees are deeply rooted in Judeo-Christian faith and culture. Lopian says: “Olive trees are intrinsically linked to the Mediterranean landscape for thousands of years. Take the olive trees of Vouves (Crete) and Gethsemane (Israel), which are among the oldest of the world and may have been witness to historical figures such as Socrates, Cicero or Jesus Christ walking between them.

Entire social and commercial structures have developed around olive production and are at risk of being destroyed. The EU study on the economic impacts of Xylella also mentions the societal impact and found that apart from many job losses Xylella will severely impact 18 UNESCO World Heritage sites within the EU. The loss of traditions, cultures and rural social structures are hard to measure.”

Plants and politics

Political implications of pests and diseases can also be disastrous. Lopian references the case of potato blight (Phytophthora infestans) in Ireland, demonstrating how the introduction of a single disease resulted in the great famine in the country. “Hunger not only killed about one million Irish it caused also the migration of a further million Irish to primarily the USA. There are predictions that the current outbreak of the FAW in Africa, coupled with an apocalyptic locust plague and logistical disruptions amid Covid-19 may result in serious food insecurity in Africa. Social unrests and possibly more African migrants to Europe may follow.”

Lopian believes plant health must be higher on the agenda of politicians. “This notion is one of the reasons why Finland, the IPPC and the FAO promote the concept of an International Year of Plant Health. We need to make the public and political decision-makers aware of the serious consequences pests and diseases can pose for the environment, economies and societies.”

Are we waiting for the next crisis?

Staying ahead of damaging plant pests 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. How can the IPPC community, finding itself on top of the pyramid, give the issue the prominence and priority it deserves, permanently and without waiting for the next crisis?
“This is also one of the main objectives of the IYPH 2020. Raising awareness among the public to make them awake to the dangers of bringing uninspected plants and plant products from abroad. In addition, the cooperation between the public and the private sector to make more efficient phytosanitary regulations which can be applied by professionals and can convince them that they are necessary for their own economic benefit. The IPPC community is composed of 184 contracting parties that provide an international framework for protecting plant resources from pests and diseases and promote safe trade among all countries. Here we have the unique opportunity to adopt International Standards for Phytosanitary Measures (ISPMs), and thus provide advice to people and operators on harmonised and more efficient ways to carry out safe trade and act responsibly,” notes Lopian.

He warns against the online delivery of plants and plant products since postal packages can easily bypass the normal phytosanitary controls vital for keeping our agricultural industries safe from external threats.

The weakest link deserves attention

In a well-oiled plant health control chain, authorities responsible for screening imports and exports are efficient, diligent, well-staffed and resourceful. However, IPPC has identified phytosanitary capacity and resource limitations as being one of the most significant barriers.

“It is unfortunate that many countries do not have the resources available, the lack of political will or simply a lack of sufficient political structures to build up a competent and efficient national phytosanitary system. In such a dangerous situation, pests are easily introduced because they don’t respect borders. Our global or regional phytosanitary ambitions succeed or fail with the capacity of the weakest link. The IPPC has tried to counter this by developing an international evaluation tool, the Phytosanitary Capacity Evaluation (PCE), which helps support IPPC contracting parties in identifying weaknesses and providing suggestion to improve its capacity.”

To minimise further introductions and spread of devastating pests and diseases, Lopian urges countries to invest more in surveillance and monitoring, being the pillars under a well-functioning plant health regime. Moreover, governments should invest in an extra phytosanitary research capacity to deliver fundamental knowledge of ecosystem dynamics and the role of pests and diseases in their ecosystems. “Ultimately, this would help establish sustainable and environmentally friendly ways of controlling plant diseases including the use of pest and disease-free starting and planting material. It would also deliver knowledge on the impact of climate change on pests and diseases and their hosts. An important subject for the immediate future of our biosphere.”

Staying ahead of damaging plant pests requires constant vigilance at every level.

Pheromone traps and sentinel plants

Pheromone traps are standard practice in countries such as New Zealand and Australia to detect tropic fruit flies near the point of entry. These can undoubtedly play a more prominent role in European countries, particularly in the south.

The potential role of sentinel plants in surveillance for pest introductions is much newer. Lopian calls the planting of sentinel European trees in, for example, China very promising. “One of the primary observations in plant health is that many ‘exotic’ pests and diseases are not important in their area of origin. There they co-evolved with their hosts in the ecosystem and achieved a balance. When these pest and diseases are transposed into new ecosystems they do not have the balance with their new host species and quite often devastating damages occur. The idea to plant highly susceptible plants near points of entry or risk areas is very appealing since it is a cheap and effective way of detecting small populations of introduced pests and diseases, which then allows for rapid eradication measures.”

IYPH 2020 now extends beyond 2020

To conclude, the International Year of Plant Health 2020 has officially drawn to a close. What is achieved, and what is still in the pipeline as IYPH follow up events?
“The IYPH 2020 has been a rollercoaster of emotions and activities. We started the IYPH 2020 well with a flurry of activities and initiatives. We have had over 600 events worldwide connected to plant health and the IYPH. Some of the highlights are undoubtedly the minting of a 2 Euro IYPH coin in Belgium and the printing of specific IYPH stamps in over 20 countries. However, in March 2020, Covid-19 struck international and national travel and caused many countries to lock-down. This situation affected IYPH 2020 activities, substantially cancelling a multitude of events were physical participation was planned. Instead, the IYPH 2020 activities went virtual, and plant health received significant attention on social media, with several million views on popular platforms, despite the pandemic. Many policy dialogues include plant health, particularly in connection with the One Health Approach and the UN’s Food Systems Summit’s current activities.

One of the major legacy initiatives has been the efforts to declare an International Day of Plant Health. The government of Zambia has made a proposal to FAO. I expect that the 12 May will be announced as the International Day of Plant Health by the United Nations General Assembly later this year.

Much to Lopian’s regret, is the cancellation of the first International Plant Health Conference, which should have taken place in Helsinki in October 2020, then moved to the end of June 2021, before being cancelled at the beginning of February this year. We are now trying to organise a conference in May 2022, but need to find a new host country for the event. We will schedule several webinars before the IYPH 2020 closing ceremony on 1 July 2021. One of the webinars will be held on 1 June and will be the official publication of the IYPH study on “Climate Change Impact on Plant Health”. This study will contribute to achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.”

AIPH s International Plant Health Conference on 24 March is a shining example of IYPH involvement, even if 2020 is over. “The year is over, but not the mission of IYPH 2020! The closing ceremony is on 1 July 2021. So, the AIPH’s International Plant Health Conference is very welcome by the International Steering Committee and fits perfectly in the timing of IYPH 2020 events. With regard to my keynote speech, I don’t want to spoil the excitement for the participants ahead of the conference. I can tell you, however, that considering the presence of many industry participants, I will especially focus on better public/private cooperation to advance plant health. Only if the public and the private sectors cooperate well together can we achieve great results in protecting plant health and preserving our biodiversity.”

For more details and registration for AIPH’s International Plant Health Conference click here: AIPH International Plant Health Conference 

Keeping our world GREEN

Watch Lopian’s presentation at the AIPH International Plant Health Conference.


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