Food security

Reviewing the importance of International Year of Plant Health

The United Nations (U.N.) declared 2020 the International Year of Plant Health. This sent a powerful message to the world: Plants are life.

Sadly, the COVID-19 crisis changed a lot of 2020 – and the UN gave an extension to International Year of Plant Health into 2021. That’s how important plant health is!

Plants make almost all the oxygen we breathe and give us 80 percent of the food we eat. Plants clothe and shelter us. They sustain our livestock and poultry. They also provide habitat for wildlife, form the base of nature’s food chains, and help biodiversity to flourish.

In addition, agricultural trade in plants and plant products has become crucial for human survival and economic growth in many rural areas. It is worth nearly $1.7 trillion annually. Over the past decade, its growth has almost tripled.

Thriving plants mean thriving people.

International Year of Plant Health promotes the value of our precious plant resources and the need to safeguard them against destructive invasive pests. Protecting plants helps the U.N. to meet many of its sustainable development goals. These include reducing hunger, poverty, and threats to the environment.

Invasive Pests: A Real and Growing Plant Health Threat

Today, our life-sustaining plants face an ever-growing threat: invasive pests. According to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization, these pests destroy up to 40 percent of food crops worldwide. They cause $220 billion in trade losses annually. They can also throw ecosystems out of balance and devastate biodiversity. As we know, invasive pests can spread through global agricultural trade. This pest pressure constantly increases.

Mediterranean fruit fly on leaf
The Mediterranean fruit fly, shown here, is considered the most damaging agricultural pest in the world. It can infest hundreds of varieties of fruits, vegetables, and nuts causing considerable damage to agriculture and threatening food security. Photo courtesy of Scott Bauer, USDA Agricultural Research Service, Bugwood.org

USDA’s Plant Protection and Quarantine Program

The USDA has a program called Plant Protection and Quarantine. This program is a vigilant protector that stands between invasive pests and the health of our country’s farms, ranches, nurseries, and forests.

Plant Protection and Quarantine partners with state departments of agriculture, academia, industry, nonprofit organizations, and many others. We work offshore, at U.S. ports of entry, and across the nation to protect America’s agriculture and ecosystems.

Abroad

Our program begins the fight against pests and diseases before they ever have a chance to come here. Just some of these activities include:

  • Inspecting certain fruits, vegetables, plants, and bulbs overseas. This ensures they arrive pest- and disease-free.
  • Certifying foreign facilities that produce or treat high-demand, large-volume, U.S.-bound commodities like fruits, vegetables, and nursery plants.
  • Working with U.S. Department of Defense personnel in Europe and Africa to inspect shipments of military cargo, household goods, and personal vehicles for invasive pests before they return to the United States.
  • Ensuring Far Asia-origin vessels don’t bring the leaf-devouring Asian gypsy moth into our ports of entry.
  • Collaborating with countries globally—and regionally in North American and the Caribbean region—to establish science-based plant health standards. These make international trade safer and more predictable
workers inspecting fruits and vegetables
In 2019, PPQ inspected and pre-cleared 4 billion pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables and more than 1 billion plants and bulbs from 26 countries before they shipped to the United States. Photo courtesy of USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service

At the Border

U.S. ports of entry are our last chance to keep pests and diseases out of our country. Plant Protection and Quarantine mounts a powerful defense against them by:

  • Studying the risk of plant pests and diseases and how they can travel to our country. That helps us define the plant health import requirements minimize the risk that a commodity will introduce invasive pests.
  • Operating 16 plant inspection stations that inspect most live plants, plant cuttings, and seeds arriving in the United States. Each station ensures the materials are free of foreign plant pests and diseases of concern and meet our import standards.
  • Training U.S. customs inspectors and the dogs they use to detect prohibited agricultural products.
  • Identifying intercepted pests quickly and ordering emergency actions—such as treatments, re-export, or destruction—to keep quarantine pests out of the country.
  • Preventing the smuggling of agricultural goods and tracing plant and animal products that may have entered the country illegally.
  • Inspecting passenger baggage and cargo in Hawaii and Puerto Rico that are bound for the U.S. mainland to prevent certain pests on those islands from entering the U.S. mainland.

Across the Nation

Despite these efforts, sometimes pests and diseases do enter the United States. Our program implements:

  • Working with the States, Tribes, and other cooperators to conduct annual pest surveys nationwide to detect pests and diseases early and respond rapidly.
  • Striking back, when warranted, when pests become established. To do this, we collaborate with the States and our other partners to control, suppress—and, if feasible—eradicate them.
  • Conducting outreach across the nation. Our Hungry Pests public awareness program informs the public about the invasive species threat and how to prevent their spread.

Our program has seen many eradication successes. In 2019, we eradicated plum pox virus from the United States. This achievement protected 1.3 million acres of commercial stone fruit orchards whose crops are worth $6.3 billion annually.

plum showing signs of plum pox virus
Plum pox virus is the most devastating viral disease of stone fruit worldwide. Photo courtesy of the European and Mediterranean Plant Protection Organization, Bugwood.org

Get Involved, Make a Difference!

Plant Protection and Quarantine and our cooperators cannot do this vast and complex safeguarding work alone. Everyone has a role to play—including you. See how you can protect plant health right where you live. Visit HungryPests.com to learn how.

Answered by Osama El-Lissy, USDA’s Plant Protection and Quarantine program

About us: This blog is sponsored and written by members of the American Society of Agronomy and Crop Science Society of America. Our members are researchers and trained, certified, professionals in the areas of growing our world’s food supply while protecting our environment. We work at universities, government research facilities, and private businesses across the United States and the world.

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