Interview with Morag Webb, Special Advisor, Sustainable Agricultural Value Chains, COLEACP

The Europe-Africa-Caribbean-Pacific Liaison Committee (COLEACP) is a civil society organisation (CSO), established in 1973 by stakeholders in the international fruit and vegetable trade. From an operational standpoint, COLEACP is a network and a technical assistance tool for the sustainable and inclusive development of the private sector (SMEs) based on expertise and an active training system in 50 countries (outside the EU).

Since its creation, COLEACP has been managing development projects in the ACP agricultural and food sector, financed by donors (mainly the European Union).
COLEACP is also regularly consulted by public and private stakeholders to support them with crisis management (food safety and plant protection). Its positioning as an organisation permanently liaising between the different stakeholders in the agricultural sectors facilitates this type of action.

Morag Webb, Special Advisor, Sustainable Agricultural Value Chains, COLEACP


On 13 December 2016, the new EU Plant Health Regulation (Regulation (EU) 2016/2031) was introduced and will become fully applicable on 13 December 2019. As highlighted in your in the publication issued in November 2018 ‘’EU plant health regulation and impact on ACP countries‘’ you raise awareness about the potential impacts of this regulation on exports from ACP countries. Could you summarise the issue?

The new EU Plant Health Regulation is focused on the prevention of entry or spread of plant pests within the EU. It brings in new rules for surveillance, eradication, and imports, and is based on the premise that to avoid future harm to EU agriculture or environment, resources need to be invested in prevention. It introduces a major change in approach and though importing most plants and plant products from third countries will be allowed in principle, it will be subject to more stringent conditions.

High risk commodities. For ACP countries, one of the most significant changes is the introduction of new measures for high risk commodities (crops). After December 2019, importing high risk crops will be prohibited unless and until a commodity risk assessment has been conducted to determine if imports are acceptable and, if yes, under what conditions. The main criterion for listing as high risk is that the crop/country is known to host and provide a significant pathway for serious pests into the EU.  In December 2018, the High Risk Implementing Regulation and provisional list was adopted. This includes 39 species, only one of which is a fruit/vegetable (Momordica (gourd) originating from countries where Thrips palmi is known to occur). It is expected that more will be added to the list in future. Once listed, a crop is in effect prohibited and National Plant Protection Organisations (NPPOs) from third countries must request an exemption by submitting a technical dossier to the EC.  This dossier will be used as the basis for a risk assessment by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).  The rules and procedures that third countries must follow when they trigger and support risk assessments have recently been outlined in Regulation (EU) 2018/2018. Preparing this detailed technical dossier will be onerous for many ACP countries.  Once a risk assessment is completed, the dossier will be evaluated and a decision taken as to any special measures needed. The exporting country and supply chain will then have to put these measures in place before imports are allowed.

Phytosanitary (phyto) Certificates. Currently only a limited number of plants/plant products require a phyto certificate, but under the new Regulation, almost all living plant material (entire plants, fruits, vegetables, cut flowers, seeds, etc.) will have to be accompanied by a certificate. A number of commodities considered to be low risk will be exempted, and the provisional list of exempted crops (EU 2016/2031) includes: pineapple, coconut, durian, figs, banana and dates.  Aside from these 6 crops, after December 2019, exporting countries will need to be ready to issue phyto certificates for all other exports, a potentially large volume of produce. Tight inspection procedures in third countries must be in place and functioning effectively and efficiently by this date, and ready to cope with the expected volume of inspections.  This may mean a big step-up for some ACP inspection services, especially those not already experienced in managing large numbers of inspections and phytosanitary certificates.

Temporary Measures Against New Trade. Where there is little experience with trade of certain plants or plant products, and where related pest risks are still unknown, the new Regulation sets out the possibility of introducing temporary phytosanitary import restrictions, or even a prohibition, until more scientific information becomes available.   This could affect a new variety, a new origin, or new trade of small volume tropical crops; in effect, situations where there is a lack of data.

Interim Emergency Measures.  Importantly, while only Momordica is currently listed as high risk under the new Regulation, additional emergency measures may be brought in under the existing rules for specific crop/pest problems. An example is Implementing Directive 2017/1279 published in July 2017, which required additional measures for the control of four new quarantine pests including False Codling Moth (FCM).  This had major impacts on exports of Capsicum to the EU from Africa, Cape Verde, Madagascar, La Reunion, and Mauritius.

Associated Regulatory Changes. These tighter plant health regulations are not happening in isolation, but are part of a process of EU regulatory reform to strengthen enforcement of health and safety standards for the agri-food chain. Most importantly, the new plant health rules are accompanied by changes to regulations covering plant protection products (PPPs) under Regulations (EC) No 1107/2009 and (EC) No 396/2005.  Growers are having to supply the high quality produce expected by the market, and to meet the more stringent plant health rules, with a dwindling list of PPPs available for use, and few alternatives pest control products or methods coming along to replace them.

In order to disseminate information about the new EU Plant Health regulation, COLEACP hosted meetings in 14 ACP countries. Could you please tell us what were the main concerns shared by professionals in the field?

The awareness raising workshops held by COLEACP during 2017 and 2018 brought together public and private sector stakeholders in ACP countries.  The aim was to share as much information as possible so that exporting countries can begin to assess the potential impact, consider what needs to be done, and start to develop an action plan to ensure that everything is in place by the time the new Regulation is fully applied. In all countries it was clear that the new regulation has important implications for the trade in fruit and vegetables to the EU.  Some of the issues raised were:

  • For producers and exporters involved in export horticulture, the stakes are very high; they feel it is critical that everything is in place at the level of both public and private stakeholders to prevent any breaks in trade.
  • Information sharing at all levels is critical. This includes receiving information in a timely way from the EU, and sharing it with all stakeholders that are implicated.  ACP countries also need to be able to engage effectively in consultation, especially at the WTO level, when regulatory changes are notified.
  • A coordinated national response and action plan is needed to address the new rules. This requires engagement between the relevant public authorities, as well as between public and private sectors. Stakeholders need to agree who will take responsibility for what, and have a mechanism in place to hold players to account and ensure they deliver. Industry associations must also coordinate to mobilise and influence at a government level.
  • Many countries (especially private sector participants) expressed concerns about the lack of resources for public authorities to meet the extra demands. Reallocating public funds to address this needs decisions to be taken at high level. In particular, the Regulation will put considerable demands on NPPOs and inspection services in terms of the increased volume of work, as well as in the skillsets required.
  • Capacity building is needed of both public and private sectors to meet the new demands, for example to prepare the technical dossiers for emergency measures and high risk crops.
  • Recent experience of emergency measures under current legislation (e.g. FCM) is that they created major challenges for exporting countries. This was in large part because of the short timescale between introduction and application of the changes that did not give time for the sector to adjust. It is a real worry if this becomes the norm under the new Regulation.
  • One of the big challenges facing producers and exporters is the decline in PPPs available and registered for use on export crops. It is increasingly difficult to meet more stringent plant health rules while still complying with PPP maximum residue levels and supplying the quality of produce demanded by the market.
  • Export sectors should also look for opportunities to benefit from the changes. For example, improved plant health controls could help to access other markets (regional and international).

How can authorities in ACP countries adjust to this new regulation? What are COLEACP’s main recommendations?

Once the new Regulation is applied, public authorities must ensure that controls are in place, and applied efficiently and effectively at all times, to guarantee that exports fully meet the new rules; future tolerance of non-compliances is likely to be low, potentially leading to additional special measures or import bans.  Maintaining the flow of trade will require considerable efforts by the public sector (to ensure the effectiveness of controls), as well as private  sector operators (who will have to invest to meet the rules and any additional measures imposed).  Operators and competent authorities need to start preparing for the new Regulation as soon as possible.   This may include the following:

  • The new rules will put additional inspection and administrative burdens on competent authorities. In some countries there may be issues of capacity and competence to deal with the changes.  Decisions need to be taken now to commit the necessary resources. Inspection services may face an increase in workload due to the new requirements for phytosanitary certificates. It is important to make a calculation of the likely increase in the volume of work so that, if necessary, additional inspectors can be recruited and trained by December 2019. The correct protocols and operating procedures must also be in place, and the necessary competencies of all staff ensured. NPPOs will need the resources and skills to compile the technical dossiers required for high risk commodities.  They also need to be able to start routinely collecting pest data according to IPPC guidelines for both PRAs and the establishment of pest free areas and production zones.
  • There is concern that the timescale is short for countries to react to high risk crop listing (as well as the introduction of additional emergency measures). If countries already have pest risk data, they will be in a better position to respond. NPPOs should focus attention on crops where there is a likelihood of being listed (e.g. historically high plant health interceptions), and where a break in trade would have serious national implications for the economy, incomes and employment.
  • National export sectors may consider the establishment of a public-private stakeholder task force to ensure that activities nationally are coordinated and coherent. A national action plan could be agreed to ensure that all parties who have a role to play are fully on-board.
  • Producers are likely to face significant challenges in the management of pests on export crops. The new Regulation comes when fruit and vegetable growers are already experiencing a significant decline in the range of PPPs available and registered for use, as well as reductions in the permitted pesticide maximum residue levels. Under these constraints, they are still expected to supply consistent volumes of high quality, blemish free produce. Growers need support to meet these challenges both in the short-term (e.g. in fast-track registration of new PPPs), and long-term (e.g. research and innovation to develop and disseminate improved control options).

What type of assistance can private operators/exporters ( in ACP countries) receive from COLEACP vis-a-vis the latest EU Plant Health regulation?

Under the COLEACP Sustainability and Competitiveness Programmes, support to meet these regulatory changes is available to producers, exporters and local service providers in ACP countries that have signed an MoU with the Association. This includes the generic training available to all programme beneficiaries in sustainable production, food safety and crop protection, as well as additional tailored support specifically to address problems that arise as a result of the changes.  By the end of 2018, 600 requests for support had been submitted to COLEACP from horticultural companies, cooperatives and local support services (public and private) from 40 ACP Countries.

In addition to this, the COLEACP Programmes offer support to public sector authorities in order to prepare for and adapt to the new Regulation.  As noted by private sector participants at the awareness-raising workshops, the efficiency and effectiveness of the public sector authorities will be critical.  As a priority, COLEACP will target support for inspection services to put in place and implement the necessary protocols and operating procedures, and ensure that they have sufficient numbers of trained inspectors to cope with the increased demand.  Support for NPPOs to implement pest surveys and risk assessments, as well as compiling dossiers for high risk commodities, is also available.  Further to this, support for public competent authorities will be organised according to the applications received and the needs that arise.  It is expected that this will involve, in particular, extension services and PPP registration bodies.

Some training for public authorities has already been organized.  Following discussion with third countries, COLEACP identified a need to support ACP NPPOs in the collection of pest risk data and recently organised regional training in Africa for both Anglophone and Francophone NPPOs. A national capacity is essential in order that pest data for PRAs, and the establishment of pest free areas, can be generated rapidly, efficiently, and according to international guidelines laid down by the IPPC.

COLEACP also offers facilitation for the establishment and implementation of national public-private platforms to develop and implement coordinated action plans.  The importance of these platforms was highlighted in the awareness raising workshops mentioned previously, and has been demonstrated in countries that have been particularly affected by recent plant health problems.  Alongside this, during the roll-out of the new regulation, COLEACP has made every effort to share information about each new development in order to give stakeholders as much time as possible to act and reactThis has included information updates via email, as well as workshops.

In addition to direct support, COLEACP has a research and innovation team that provides the technical information and recommendations necessary to meet the new Regulation.  This includes, for example, advisory bulletins on management of critical pests, field trials to screen and register alternative crop protection technologies, and regular updates on plant health non-compliances to identify emerging problems.  COLEACP also liaises closely with the industry, EU and ACP authorities, and the donor community to ensure that information is shared, and that critical lines of communication are open.