- The International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC) said that while the world battles COVID-19, plant pests, and diseases continue to pose a threat to food production, stressing we must not let our guard down.
- Quarantine processes for samples of plant materials brought into the country for research purposes have been impacted due to the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19)-associated lockdown, according to the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources (NBPGR) of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research.
- In an interview with Mongabay-India, NBPGR scientists discuss the challenges in plant quarantine for research samples under the lockdown, the gaps in plant biosecurity in India and implications for a post-COVID world.
The International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC), an inter-governmental treaty signed by 184 countries, dubbed it an “unfortunate coincidence” that during the International Year of Plant Health (IYPH) in 2020, the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) global outbreak is “showing the world how adopting preventive measures is essential to secure countries from the introduction and spread of devastating human diseases.”
IPPC, aimed at protecting the world’s plant resources from the spread and introduction of pests and promoting safe trade, said that the COVID-19 pandemic is proving that prevention is always better than cure, and this applies to the health of humans, animals, and plants.
India is a signatory to the IPPC, which stresses while the world battles COVID-19, plant pests, and diseases that continue to pose a threat to food production, must not slip through the cracks.
In the past, India like the rest of the world has seen the devastating effects resulting from diseases and pests introduced along with the international movement of plant material, agricultural produce, and product, experts have said. Among these are examples like coffee rust introduced in Sri Lanka in 1875 and its subsequent introduction in India in 1876; fluted scale (sap-sucking insect) on citrus introduced from Sri Lanka in 1928; San Jose scale in apple introduced into India in the 1930s; and bunchy top of banana introduced from Sri Lanka in 1943.
The COVID-19 associated lockdown in India has posed challenges to scientists involved in quarantine processing of samples of plant materials that are brought into India for research purposes. Quarantining these samples prevents the entry of exotic pests during import.
These small samples are of immense quarantine importance because they usually comprise of germplasm material or wild relatives or landraces of a crop and are thus more likely to carry diverse biotypes/ races/ strains of the pest.
In India, the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources (NBPGR) of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), New Delhi, undertakes quarantine processing of germplasm including transgenic planting material imported into the country for research purposes and issues phytosanitary certificate for research material meant for export. Phytosanitary certification is an official declaration by the exporting country attesting that consignments meet phytosanitary import requirements-stating that plants and plant materials are free from pests and disease. In a year, at least 100,000 (one lakh) samples are examined by NBPGR in quarantine processes.
In an interview with Mongabay-India, Kuldeep Singh, director, NBPGR and S.C. Dubey, head and principal scientist, division of plant quarantine at NBPGR, discussed the challenges in plant quarantine for research samples, the gaps in plant biosecurity in India, the solutions and implications for a post-COVID world.
How do plants and plant products enter India? What is the role of NBPGR in plant biosecurity?
In India, the entry of plants or their parts is in two ways. The bulk import for commercial use and consumption is being monitored by the Directorate of Plant Protection Quarantine and Storage (DPPQS), Faridabad, Government of India. Small samples for research purposes are imported through ICAR-NBPGR.
In both cases, the Plant Quarantine (Regulation of Import into India) Order 2003 has to be followed.
ICAR-NBPGR has been empowered under the Plant Quarantine (Regulation of Import into India) Order 2003 to undertake quarantine processing of germplasm including transgenic planting material imported into the country for research purposes.
Besides, NBPGR also issues ‘phytosanitary certificate’ for research material meant for export. We have well- equipped laboratories, a greenhouse complex, and a CL-4 level containment facility to undertake the quarantine processing effectively. NBPGR also has a well-equipped quarantine station at Hyderabad, which mainly deals with the export samples of the International Crop Research Institute for Semi-arid Tropics (ICRISAT) and samples for the southern part of the country.
Can you elaborate on plant quarantine and phytosanitary certification?
Over the years, during quarantine processing in post-entry quarantine (PEQ) facilities, a large number of pests have been intercepted in germplasm and other research material which includes several pests that have not been reported yet from India. The consignments must be accompanied by a phytosanitary certificate stating the status of the consignment to be free from the pests mentioned in the declaration. NBPGR’s role in the biosecurity of the country is well defined and known. In past (1976-2019), a total of 78 pests including fungi (6), viruses (19), insects/ mites (26), nematodes (9) and weeds (18) not reported from India and of quarantine significance for India were intercepted in imported germplasm and their entry into India through samples received by NBPGR was checked.
ICAR-NBPGR is providing regular inputs on biosecurity to government agencies like the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, Department of Agricultural Research and Education, Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of External Affairs, and MoEF&CC
What are the major challenges in plant biosecurity in India?
We need more certified post-entry quarantine (PEQ) facilities to accommodate a larger number of plant materials for quarantine processes and rigorous inspection of the material before release.
Further, the Pest Risk Analysis (PRA) procedure is one of the biggest challenges for quarantine workers. PRA in plant introduction is essential to decide whether a particular planting material could be permitted entry or not. If permitted, what would be the manner of import to prohibit the introduction of new pests in the country. One of the primary responsibilities of plant protection organisation/ institutions is to identify foreign pests of crops that are important in the Indian agricultural scenario and assess the potential damage that those pests could cause if introduced in our country.
This is part of a PRA exercise which consists of risk assessment (scientific estimation of likelihood and magnitude of risk of establishment of a given pest) and impact assessment (estimation of the consequences of the establishment of pest).
Therefore, to ensure that imported commodities have no pest or disease risk to our agriculture and forestry, the Plant Quarantine Order 2003 has made it mandatory to conduct a PRA for all commodities other than those given in Schedule V, VI and VII, prior to the issue of import permit.
Updated lists of endemic pests, authentic data on country-wide survey/ surveillance, as well as literature, are indispensable in PRA procedures. To facilitate quarantine processing, and biosecurity, we need to strengthen the harmonisation of the Indian plant quarantine system with the global plant quarantine system.
This, in turn, depends on enhanced co-ordination of scientists and resource sharing among the three concerned organisations: Directorate of Plant Protection Quarantine and Storage (Department of Agriculture and Cooperation and Farmers Welfare), Indian Council of Agricultural Research (Department of Agricultural Research and Education) and state agricultural universities/other research institutions.
Additionally, there is a need for integrated agricultural biosecurity efforts. Presently in India, agricultural biosecurity is managed on a sectoral basis through the development and implementation of separate policies and legislative frameworks (e.g. for animal and plant life and health).
Although the sectoral agencies organise their work with proper attention towards the other sectors to meet the challenges of biosecurity that are of interdisciplinary nature, in the present national system, there is a need for a more harmonised and integrated approach for agricultural biosecurity working together towards common goals.
At the national level efforts are being made to develop a coherent biosecurity strategy for the country by the formulation of a comprehensive Agricultural Biosecurity Bill in 2013. The Department of Agriculture, Cooperation and Farmers’ Welfare (DACFW) has initiated the establishment of a National Agricultural Biosecurity System. Also, the re-drafting of the Agricultural Biosecurity Bill in 2018 by the DACFW to address the issue of national biosecurity in a holistic manner are some of the important steps in the right direction.
Has the lockdown impacted plant quarantine measures and biosecurity measures?
Certainly, as the seed materials are not moving across the world. We do receive a major part of rice germplasm from International Rice Research Institute during March-April and this may be affected. NBPGR is monitoring the seeds grown in the post-entry quarantine facility (PEQ) at New Delhi and Hyderabad. Up to the last week of February, we did post-entry quarantine inspections at sites where they were indented across the country for research materials.
In a post-pandemic world, what will be the major changes with respect to plant biosecurity? Any specific way the NBPGR will also evolve its strategies?
We are going to receive huge consignments of seed samples for research purposes after the lockdown period ends. We will take utmost care at institute level for disinfestation of the outer surface of the packages containing seeds before it is opened for quarantine.
Internationally, so far there are no specific guidelines for safe and secure handling of plant and plant products from the areas having an outbreak of COVID 19. ICAR is having trained scientists and well-equipped laboratories to handle any such conditions in the case of plant pests. However, the plant quarantine system in the country needs to be strengthened both in the terms of manpower and facilities.
What are the control points in plant biosecurity procedures that will need rethinking in the wake of COVID-19?
The virus (SARS-CoV-2) that causes COVID-19 is known to be a surface contaminant, the bags containing seed samples need a certain minimum policy to be handled with care to avoid contamination. Our staff has been instructed to surface- sanitise the boxes holding the seed samples.
Banner image: Joint inspection of seed samples by Plant Quarantine staff at NBPGR, New Delhi. Photo by NBPGR.