Invasive species threat grows due to sea shipping

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Study points out most invasive species carried to PH by ship
THE Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the UN is considering imple-menting an international phytosanitary standard directed primarily at sea shipping, given that the one-year grace period to allow countries to tighten protections against invasive biological species will expire this year.

Part of the research supporting the FAO’s call for tightening controls was done at the University of the Philippines – Los Baños, which found that the most serious non-native pests such as the rice black bug, leaf miner, potato cyst nematode, and mealy bug were all accidentally introduced to the country through imports.

“The crop losses and control costs triggered by exotic pests amount to a hefty tax on food, fiber and forage production,” says Craig Fedchock, coordinator of the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO)-based International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC) Secretariat. “All told, fruit flies, beetles, fungi and their kin reduce global crop yields by between 20 and 40 percent,” he explained.

The FAO pointed out that invasive species have historically dramatically affected food production, and that sea shipping has largely been the means by which species, which may be entirely benign in their native habitats, arrive and wreak havoc in far-away countries.


“It was an exotic fungus that wiped out billions of American chestnut trees in the early 20th century, while today the emerald ash borer – another pest that hitch-hiked along global trade routes to new habitats – threatens to do the same with a valuable tree long used by humans to make tool handles, guitars and office furniture,” the FAO said in a recently-published position paper.

The FAO notes that perhaps the most disastrous biological invasion was when a fungus-like eukaryotic microorganism called Phytophthora infestans – the name of the genus comes from Greek for “plant destroyer” – sailed from the Americas to Belgium. Within months it arrived in Ireland, triggering a potato blight that led to famine, death and mass migration.

“The list goes on and on. A relative of the toxic cane toad that has run rampant in Australia recently disembarked from a container carrying freight to Madagascar, a biodiversity hotspot, and the ability of females to lay up to 40,000 eggs a year make it a catastrophic threat for local lemurs and birds, while also threatening the habitat of a host of animals and plants,” the FAO report said. And in Europe, fears are growing that a warming climate will allow the aggressive tiger mosquito, a ship borne invader that first arrived in Albania in the 1970s, to spread northward.

“This is why the nations of the world came together some six decades ago to establish the International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC) as a means to help stem the spread of plant pests and diseases across borders boundaries via international trade and to protect farmers, foresters, biodiversity, the environment, and consumers,” the FAO report said.

Shipping containers carry pests
The FAO noted, however, that the growth in sea shipping, with most of the cargo carried in containers, is putting severe pressure on efforts to control invasive species. The report cites data that about 527 million sea container trips are made each year, and that China alone deals with over 133 million sea containers annually.

“It is not only their cargo, but the steel contraptions themselves, that can serve as vectors for the spread of exotic species capable of wreaking ecological and agricultural havoc,” the FAO said. The organization said that an analysis of 116,701 empty sea containers arriving in New Zealand over the past five years showed that one in 10 was contaminated on the outside, twice the rate of interior contamination. Unwelcome pests included the gypsy moth, the Giant African snail, Argentine ants and the brown marmorated stink bug, each of which threaten crops, forests and urban environments. Soil residues, meanwhile, can contain the seeds of invasive plants, nematodes and plant pathogens.

“Inspection records from the United States, Australia, China and New Zealand indicate that thousands of organisms from a wide range of taxa are being moved unintentionally with sea containers,” the study’s lead scientist, Eckehard Brockerhoff of the New Zealand Forest Research Institute, told a recent meeting at FAO of the Commission on Phytosanitary Measures (CPM), IPPC’s governing body.

PH invaders
In an FAO-support study by UP Los Baños, invasive species carried to the Philippines by sea shipping include the rice black bug, which is a major rice crop pest in Mindanao and some parts of the Visayas, particularly Leyte, and arrived by cargo ship from Indonesia and Malaysia; the potato cyst nematode, which affects potato and some other vegetable crops in Northern Luzon and arrived with the importation of contaminated potato planting materials; the golden apple snail, another serious pest that according to various estimates (FAO, the International Rice Research Institute, and the Department of Agriculture) causes between $28 million and $45 million of damage per year; and the mealy bug, which affects coconut production in Palawan, and was imported with hybrid coconut planting materials.

Estimates for crop losses from invasive species in the Philippines are difficult to find, but on a global scale, Brockerhoff said biological invasions inflict damages amounting to around five percent of annual global economic activity, equivalent to about a decade’s worth of natural disasters. Factoring in harder-to-measure impacts may double that, he said.

Designing a phytosanitary action plan
In 2015, the Commission on Phytosanitary Measures adopted a recommendation encouraging national plant protection organizations to recognize and communicate the risks posed by sea containers, and to support implementation of related parts of the UN Code of Practice for Packing of Cargo Transport Units (CTU Code), a non-regulatory industry guidebook, the FAO report explained.

Although not considered a hard deadline, the Commission agreed in principle that stakeholders would be allowed a year to implement voluntary measures, and that the development of an international standard would be considered after that, which would be this year or next.

Several recommendations in the UPLB study are the same as those adopted by the Commission, including more stringent adherence to existing inspection and quarantine regulations, pilot testing of alien species, monitoring developments in genetically-modified (GMO) agricultural products and testing them, and strengthening databases to permit destination countries to quickly identify threats and appropriate response measures.

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