But if plants are a source of life – they make up 80% of the food we eat and produce 98% of the oxygen we breathe – rising temperatures, travel and international trade have an impact on the introduction and spread of plant pests, warns FAO.
This is why, in a report on the impact of electronic commerce on plant health, the UN agency invites us to “think carefully before clicking”.
Reducing the risks of e-commerce on plant health
E-commerce has grown all over the world because of its convenience, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic. However, many people are unaware that plants and regulated products, such as agricultural products, which are bought or sold online, can be vectors of pests and diseases likely to harm the flora of the countries into which they are imported.
In 2021, Emily* received an unexpected package at her home in Christchurch (New Zealand). Her 12-year-old daughter, who had not informed her, had purchased insect eggs online.
“My daughter has always loved insects. She went through different phases where she developed a passion for aquatic species, ants and other insects,” she explains. “But I didn’t expect to receive a package during the lockdown, so I was worried. My daughter, who wants to become an entomologist, explained to me that she bought the insect eggs online and that they came from Portugal. Once hatched, she hoped to make them her pets.”
Emily and her husband, aware of the potential risks, called a friend who advised them to contact New Zealand’s Department of Primary Industries.
Carolyn Bleach leads the department’s team responsible for identifying incursions and ensuring plant health biosecurity. She says that if a problem is reported, her team has a responsibility to contact the person who made the report within 30 minutes. “We spoke with the child’s mother and told her that we needed to destroy these eggs to reduce the risk.”
The ministry team told Emily the procedure she needed to follow: Carefully open the package, take photos, and store the package in the freezer overnight, then drop it in her mailbox the next morning. The Ministry of Primary Industries dispatched an incursion tracking officer who collected the package from Emily’s home avoiding contact and transported the eggs to the Ministry’s Environmental Protection and Plant Health Laboratory. in order to identify them and check whether they posed a risk.
Following diagnostic testing, the ministry identified 14 viable stick insect egg specimens. While some species are relatively widespread in New Zealand, the morose stick insect (Carausius morosus), which was in Emily’s package, is not established there and its importation there is prohibited because of the damage it is likely to cause to biodiversity.
“If it were to establish itself in New Zealand, this stick insect could harm the local flora and alter the ranges of endemic fauna, but it could also harm our primary industries,” says Carolyn Bleach.
According to the FAO, New Zealand is a leading producer and exporter of fresh fruit and vegetables, such as kiwifruit, apples and avocados. Its exports of plant and animal products reached a total volume of USD 4.5 billion in 2021.
Pests can be present not only in plants, but also in the soil of imported plants and in wood packaging materials, seeds or products made from timber, such as handicrafts, furniture and boards.
Plant pests and diseases can spread from country to country through traditional mail or through express delivery services and air or sea freight. If the item you are importing is not accompanied by a phytosanitary certificate confirming that it is free from pests and diseases, there is a significant risk of a pest entering and spreading to new areas.
Once a plant pest has established itself in a new area, its eradication becomes very expensive and almost impossible. Each year, up to 40% of crop production is destroyed by pests, which equates to trade losses of up to $220 billion.
Protecting the planet’s plants
The International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC) was created to prevent the introduction and spread of plant pests and diseases. Hosted at the FAO, the IPPC is the only international treaty body that was created to protect plant health. Ratified by 184 countries, the Convention helps prevent the introduction of pests into certain territories, preserve plants and promote safe trade by establishing international standards and helping countries to implement them.
International standards also prevent the spread of pests and diseases from one country to another. Countries can use the IPPC’s International Standards for Phytosanitary Measures, which are the gold standard for plant health, to develop their national phytosanitary legislation and import requirements. .
Authorities can use these standards as benchmarks for implementing their phytosanitary programs and activities, which range from monitoring pests and analyzing pest risks in a defined area, to detecting important pests and monitoring them. development of eradication programs.
Joining the IPPC and adopting its standards not only simplifies trade in plant products by removing risks, but also increases crop productivity, which ultimately benefits global food security. . Protecting plant health is also beneficial for the environment and biodiversity.
Raising global awareness of plant health
The Ministry of Primary Industries destroyed the stick insect eggs, their introduction into New Zealand being prohibited, and informed Emily that the species that had been identified was an alien species. Emily explained to her daughter that the best course of action in the future would be to seek to understand the impact her actions might have on a larger scale and to “think before you click”.
Raising awareness of pest risks is essential to prevent harmful organisms from spreading from one country to another and establishing themselves in new areas.
In addition to educating individuals about the importance of plant health, the IPPC also works with national plant protection organizations to enable them to implement standards to ensure import safety.
*The name of the person concerned has been changed to protect their identity.