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Fresh Quarterly 17 Overcoming Phytosanitary Obstacles
Issue SeventeenJune 2022

Overcoming phytosanitary obstacles

South African fruit must meet phytosanitary requirements to access certain key markets. How are these determined? And what does it take to comply? By Anna Mouton.

False codling moth is native to sub-Saharan Africa – always has been. It damages many different crops, including peaches, nectarines, citrus, peppers, and pomegranates. South Africa first exported peaches to the United Kingdom in 1892. Yet the European Union only implemented phytosanitary regulations for false codling moth in 2018. What happened?

“In 2009, false codling moth was found on peppers in a glasshouse in the Netherlands. Those peppers were exported to America, and they picked it up in America,” relates Hugh Campbell, general manager of Hortgro Technical. “The source was Uganda.”

The Dutch carried out a pest-risk assessment, which led to a further pest-risk assessment by the European Union. As South Africa watched the situation escalate, it became clear that new phytosanitary regulations were inevitable, and that we had to come up with a plan to comply.

“Post-harvest disinfestation treatment as a requirement was not feasible,” says Campbell. Declaring all or part of South Africa as free of false codling moths was likewise impossible. The only remaining option was to use a systems approach to achieve freedom in specific consignments.

“The systems approach translates into a combination of mitigation measures which delivers a product which is free of the organism,” explains Campbell. These mitigation measures include preharvest integrated pest management, preharvest damage assessment, pack-house inspection, and end-point inspection.

This story has a happy ending, for now, as the systems approach allows South Africa to continue exporting peaches and nectarines to the European Union. But the take-home is that phytosanitary requirements can change at any time. Anticipation of and preparation for these changes are critical to staying in international markets.

Take arms against a sea of acronyms

To understand how phytosanitary troubles arise, and how to end them, it is necessary to know the parties involved – from the IPPC to the NPPOs – in making the rules of international trade in plants and plant products. When it comes to phytosanitary risks, the global standard is set by the International Plant Protection Convention – IPPC – which falls under the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations.

“The IPPC is a set of rules to protect plants from pests,” says Campbell. “Its purpose is to encourage international trade but not at the expense of introducing unwanted foreign pests into a country.”

South Africa is one of the 184 countries that have signed up to the IPPC. “If you’re not a member of the IPPC it inhibits your opportunity to do international trade,” comments Campbell.

The IPPC is recognised by the World Trade Organization’s Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures Agreement, as is the Codex Alimentarius Commission, which deals with food-safety standards. The tension between meeting increasingly stringent food-safety standards while also meeting phytosanitary requirements will be familiar to growers.

“When something is declared a phytosanitary pest, that basically translates into zero tolerance,” says Campbell, “but the whole concept of integrated pest management is that you’re trying to manage – not annihilate – populations. The European Union is demanding that your product is completely pest-free, which is completely in contradiction with their Green Deal.”

The IPPC creates the framework within which the National Plant Protection Organisations – NPPOs – of countries negotiate the phytosanitary requirements for trade. “The process is always government to government,” says Campbell. “Our own NPPO negotiates directly with the NPPO of the importing country.”

The Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development – DALRRD – is the NPPO for South Africa. They are responsible for issuing phytosanitary certificates, managing pest surveillance, controlling pest outbreaks, inspecting and disinfesting consignments, ensuring national phytosanitary security, establishing and maintaining pest-free areas, and undertaking pest-risk analyses.

If the South African fruit industry identifies a potential new market, they need to produce evidence that the market is important before DALRRD will attempt access. Industry also has to compile a Phytosanitary Information Package – PIP – for the relevant fruit type. The PIP contains the technical information that the proposed country of import needs to conduct a pest-risk analysis.

What follows is much time and back-and-forth negotiations to establish a practical work plan with protocols that are agreed upon by both sides, according to Campbell. “We’ve just gained access for pears to China – after something like fifteen years.”

Making a knowledge-based case for our fruit

Maintaining access to existing markets involve iterations of the above process whenever the phytosanitary requirements of the importing country change. In both scenarios, our success depends on how well we can argue our case, which comes down to experts and information.

“Everything that one deals with at a market-access level requires a peer-reviewed publication,” emphasises Campbell. “For instance, the work that we’re doing on cold sterilisation has to end up as a peer-reviewed publication in an international journal for it to have any credibility – for us to be able to present it to our trading partners.”

Lindi Benić, market-access manager at Hortgro, draws on a team of three experts when dealing with phytosanitary issues. Drs Shelley Johnson and Marelize de Villiers are both specialists in phytosanitary entomology and market access, while Dr Julia Meitz-Hopkins is a post-harvest pathologist.

Campbell stresses that access to experts with the right credentials is indispensable. “There is quite a lot of interaction between experts from the importing and exporting countries, a lot of negotiation. You have to be able to substantiate an argument based on science.”

Producing the necessary science is of course a key Hortgro function. For example, when Oriental fruit fly was first identified in 2006 in Kenya, Hortgro conducted trials to prove that Oriental fruit fly was more sensitive to cold than Mediterranean fruit fly.

“We did the work in Kenya because we didn’t have Oriental fruit fly here in 2008,” says Campbell. The aim is to demonstrate that the existing cold-sterilisation protocol for Mediterranean fruit fly would be equally effective for Oriental fruit fly. In future, this type of research will benefit from the phytosanitary facility currently being established by Hortgro at Welgevallen, the Stellenbosch University experimental farm.

Since 2008, Oriental fruit fly has reached South Africa, necessitating a national surveillance programme under the auspices of DALRRD – our NPPO – to try and limit the spread. Surveillance also provides evidence that this and other pests are absent from major pome- and stone-fruit production areas. Campbell points to a 2003 survey of mealy bugs conducted to demonstrate the absence of a particular species of concern.

In addition to research and surveillance, Hortgro has collaborated with the Citrus Academy to develop an online training course on phytosanitary monitoring and inspection assessment of stone fruit with an emphasis on false codling moth and fruit flies. The course is aimed at orchard monitors and pack-house inspectors and provides assurances of competence to our trading partners.

Although producers tend to focus on accessing new markets, Campbell says that maintaining existing markets is often the greater challenge. “You need to have scientific capacity, industry experts, and government support and capacity. It’s not going to get easier.”

Bonus: What are the key phytosanitary pests for South Africa?*

  • Codling moth
  • False codling moth
  • Fruit flies
  • Grain chinch bug
  • Mealy bugs
  • Oriental fruit moth
  • Weevils or snout beetles
  • Western flower thrips

*depending on market.

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