Phyto fight: reinforcing Europe’s plant defences

The European Union has a rigorous system of protective measures in place to guard against the introduction or spread of plant pests within the EU. This regime is currently being upgraded to put a sharper focus on high-risk trade coming from third countries and to increase the traceability of planting material on the internal market. Professor Michael Jeger, Chair of EFSA’s Panel on Plant Health (PLH), explains how EFSA is supporting the modernisation programme.

Michael Jeger
Chair of EFSA’s Panel on Plant Health (PLH)

What is the plant health regime?

MJ: It is designed to protect Europe from organisms – also called plant pests – that can harm plants, plant products or biodiversity. The regime lays down the phytosanitary standards that must be met by plants and plant products entering and moving within the EU, as well as the protective measures which should be taken to enforce these requirements. Council Directive 2000/29/EC, to give it its official title, includes lists – known as the “annexes”– of organisms that are subject to these quarantine controls.

Why is the system being revised?

MJ: The world is becoming a smaller place. Factors such as climate change, globalisation of trade and the rapid growth in travel have increased the risk of new pest species entering previously unaffected areas. The system of annexes needs to be updated to reflect this new reality. Above all, we have to be sure that the EU is fully equipped to meet the threat from new pests and diseases over the coming years.

So what is EFSA doing?

MJ: In order to decide whether the listing of a plant pest in the EU quarantine annexes should be revised, risk managers need an up-to-date pest risk assessment. Where no recent risk assessment is available, the Commission has requested EFSA to carry out a new one. Over the past two years we have been asked to carry out more than 60 new assessments.

What kind of organisms are you assessing?

MJ: When we talk about plant pests, many people immediately think of insects. But the term also encompasses mites, nematodes, fungi, bacteria, phytoplasma, viruses, viroids and weeds. The effects of plant pests can range from loss of quality – for example, spots or discolouration of fruit or leaves – to losses of yield and even the death of plants. Pests can attack trees, fruit and vegetable plants, crops and ornamental plants. To give just some examples: we have assessed a number of viruses that infect strawberry, raspberry, and tomato plants; bacteria that are pests of plants grown for cut flowers such as chrysanthemum and carnation; and the leaf-miner flies Liriomyza huidobrensis and Liriomyza trifolii, which feed on a wide range of plants.

And all these assessments are being carried out by one group of experts?

MJ: No, we have split up the work using the range of specialisms and expertise available to us in the PLH Panel and the EFSA Expert Database. There are seven working groups – bacteria; fungi; insects; mites; nematodes; phytoplasma; and viruses – involving more than 30 scientists in total.

The latest opinions are pest categorisations, whereas those published between 2012 and spring 2014 were pest risk assessments. What has changed?

“Factors such as climate change, globalisation of trade and the rapid growth in travel have increased the risk of new pest species entering previously unaffected areas.”

MJ: We have learnt a lot as the programme has progressed. After we completed the first two batches of assessments, it was decided to streamline the process by splitting it into two stages. So, for the last tranche of nearly 40 assessments, rather than carrying out full pest risk assessments we have performed fast-track assessments limited initially to categorising the pests.

What’s the difference?

MJ: The main purpose of the pest categorisation stage is to specify the key biological features of the pest that influence its potential to establish, spread and have an impact in the EU and also to identify the areas where the pest is present. A pest risk assessment goes further, assessing the likelihood of entry through various pathways, as well as the probability of establishment, spread and impact, and then identifying and evaluating possible risk reduction measures.

It became apparent that, for some of the pests already present in the EU, the second stage might not always be essential, so now the risk managers at the European Commission and in Member States will decide, on the basis of the categorisation, whether a quarantine pest could be de-listed or regulated only on plant propagation material, or whether a complete risk assessment is needed before a decision can be taken. 

Has the new approach speeded up your work?

MJ: Well, we received a request to carry out 40 assessments at the end of March 2014, and all the pest categorisations will be completed by the end of this year. That’s a pretty impressive achievement, and I am immensely proud of all the scientists – Panel members, external experts and EFSA staff – who have made it possible.

What happens next?

MJ: It partly depends on how many “step 2” requests we receive following the categorisation phase, but any follow-up tasks will be carried out in the course of 2015. The Commission will then have a solid scientific foundation for the revision of Directive 2000/29/EC, and Europe will have a strong, modern plant health defence system.

EFSA’s pest risk assessments

Media contacts