Phytosanitary certificates are the global markets’ entrance ticket for trade with plant products. These certificates ensure the documentation of compliance with the phytosanitary rules set by the importing country. Thanks to the standardization of the look and content of these certificates, trade has been significantly facilitated. But the transmission of the certificates in paper form still leaves space for manoeuvre.
Phytosanitary certificates are issued by the National Plant Protection Authority (NPPO) of the exporting country in paper format and travel along many hands — from the exporter to the ship to the border control — until it reaches its final recipient, the NPPO of the importing country. This offers many opportunities for falsification or loss from NPPO to NPPO.
Incomplete or missing certificates are significant reasons for interceptions all over the world — not only in the fruit and vegetable trade, but also for flowers, grains and every plant-based product trade country to country. Each of these products has its own story to tell. For fruit and vegetables, it’s the story of perishability and huge fragmentation of global trade flows, which make the challenges unique. More than 118 million tons, with a market value of $114 billion, is shipped around the world.
The value chain is very fragmented, coming from more than 200 different origins and reaching 200 different destinations in the world — and this is not everything. The fragmentation continues within the product varieties — 60 million tons of fruit and vegetables are comprised by only 13 different product groups, such as banana (21 million tons), citrus (16 million tons), apple (11.2 million tons) and onions and shallots (9.7 million tons). But the remaining 58 million tons are uncountable in origin and product.
There are no global figures investigating the matter in its whole. Each year the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Health and Food Safety (DG Santé) releases its interceptions report based on the European Union Notification System for Plant Health Interceptions “Europhyt.” According to the 2016 annual report, approximately 30 percent of all plant products were intercepted because the phytosanitary certificate was absent, incomplete, illegible, fake, expired or posed problems with additional declarations. This included products from flowers, fruit and vegetables, seeds, potatoes and wood packaging material. The global picture of interceptions does not differ much from the EU reporting, and the challenges are the same around the world.
Incomplete or missing certificates are significant reasons for interceptions all over the world.
What does this mean for customs and border operations? They need to be swift and seamless in order to allow fast release of the consignment. Delays can cause loss of product quality and eventually, money. As digitalization of customs operations moves forward, the advancement of electronic certification is a major stumbling block to seamless trade. Driven by the International Plant Protection Convention’s Committee (IPPC) on phytosanitary measures, the creation of a hub for the transmission of electronic phytosanitary certificates (ePhyto) has been discussed for some time and is now becoming a reality. Electronic transmission from NPPO to NPPO will help make trade safer and help to avoid documentation from getting lost or forged from the country of origin to the actual destination.
The project is comprised of two major steps. Many countries have electronic transmission systems in place that function on a bilateral exchange. A common transmission hub will help to connect all these individual systems and ensure greater harmonization. Several countries have declared interest in participating in the first testing period, including Australia, New Zealand, Chile, China, the United States, the Netherlands, South Korea, Kenya and Ecuador. All these countries have their own systems in place and will be connected to a common IT-hub. The hub’s only task is to submit the certificate in a protected email from NPPO “A” to NPPO “B.” The system will not read the content of the document, only transfer it.
As this project’s aim is also trade facilitation for less-developed countries, the second part of the project is to create a generic system for countries that do not have an electronic system in place. With this generic system, a phytosanitary certificate can be easily generated via an application and connected to the IT-hub. Piloting countries include Sri Lanka, Samoa and Ghana. For these countries, participating in global trade is a crucial component to their economic growth and development. We expect more countries will follow as the benefits for all industries to participate are obvious: global harmonization, reduced potential for fraudulent certificates, improved efficiencies at the NPPO level, improved security in the transmission of the certificates and more efficiency in the arrival and clearance of plants and plant products at the point of entry.
The project is supported by various industries, and expectations are high. The implementation of the pilot is planned through year-end 2018, but the biggest question remains: How is funding ensured and development continuous after 2018? Beyond the trial lie big challenges. Will the systems speak to each other? Which scientific names, codes and data will be used in the “ePhyto” to create global harmonization?
Nelli Hajdu is the trade policy advisor of Freshfel Europe, the European Fruit and Vegetable Association based in Brussels. She holds a post-graduate master’s degree from the College of Europe and specializes in trade policy. Freshfel is member of the Industry Advisory Group, accompanying and supporting together with other plant and plant product trading industries the implementation of IPPC’s ePhyto project.