Sea containers spread pests and diseases: FAO

NEW YORK, 18th August, 2016 (WAM) - Oil spills garner much public attention and anguish, but "biological spills" represent a greater long-term threat and do not have the same high public profile, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) warned in a statement.

It was an exotic fungus that wiped out billions of American chestnut trees in the early 20th century, dramatically altering the landscape and ecosystem, 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.

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 crop losses and control costs triggered by exotic pests amount to a hefty tax on food, fibre and forage production," says Craig Fedchock, coordinator of the FAO-based IPPC Secretariat. "All told, fruit flies, beetles, fungi and their kin reduce global crop yields by between 20 and 40 percent," he explains.

Invasive species arrive in new habitats through various channels, but shipping, is the main one.

And shipping today means sea containers: Globally, around 527 million sea container trips are made each year - 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.

"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.

Damage exceeds well beyond agriculture and human health issues. Invasive species can cause clogged waterways and power plant shutdowns.

Biological invasions inflict damages amounting to around five percent of annual global economic activity, equivalent to about a decade's worth of natural disasters, according to one study. Factoring in harder-to-measure impacts may double that, Brockerhoff said.

Around 90 percent of world trade is carried by sea today, with a vast panoply of differing logistics, making agreement on an inspection method elusive. Some 12 million containers entered the U.S. last year, using no fewer than 77 ports of entry.

Last year, 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 guide book.

This would allow stakeholders to implement a system to address these concerns without putting the brakes on the wheels of commerce - represented by automated cranes able to load or unload containers in around 20 seconds at a mid-sized port like Hamburg, which handles a quarter of the volume of Shanghai.

While additional time is needed, a broad consensus is emerging that the risks are significant enough to warrant action.


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