By Greg Rosenthal
It’s one of the biggest challenges facing agriculture today: how to move billions of dollars’ worth of agricultural commodities in international trade—without accidentally spreading invasive pests and diseases. So to keep trade safe, countries must inspect and certify their exports of plants and plant products to ensure they meet the importing countries' plant health requirements. If the exporting country fails to issue an official plant health (phytosanitary) certificate stating the product meets those requirements, the importing country will reject that shipment. And problems can arise because historically these certificates have been issued on paper, which is easy to lose and vulnerable to fraud.
Enter a visionary solution: the ePhyto Hub, a paperless, global, digital exchange for electronic phytosanitary certificates. USDA’s Plant Protection and Quarantine (PPQ) program is providing funds and technical expertise to this project, working with the ePhyto Steering Group of the International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC). The IPPC is an international plant health agreement with 183 participating countries, including the United States.
“The ePhyto Hub will transform international agricultural trade,” said Christian Dellis, PPQ’s Export Services Director and an IPPC ePhyto Steering Group member. “Each country’s computerized trade system will share a common technical vocabulary and a set of established trade rules. That will let them all interconnect seamlessly through the global ePhyto Hub, where they can exchange fraud-resistant electronic phytosanitary certificates quickly, accurately, and at very low cost. That means lower costs to exporters and fewer shipments detained at foreign ports of entry.”
As the United States’ National Plant Protection Organization, PPQ is responsible for issuing phytosanitary certificates. While PPQ has its own electronic certification system called Phytosanitary Certificate Issuance and Tracking, it would need to engage in more than a hundred separate bilateral negotiations to connect all U.S. export markets to the system.
“That would cost considerable time and money,” Dellis noted. “Once implemented globally, the ePhyto Hub will spare us that effort and deliver a huge cost savings, reducing staff time needed for bilateral negotiations and all the associated travel expenses. It will also result in quicker and clearer communications, helping to eliminate costs that can arise from misunderstandings and disputes.”
In addition to the ePhyto Hub, the ePhyto project includes a generic national ePhyto system for developing countries to deploy. This system will ensure that every nation has access this new capability and its benefits.
Over the next 9 to 12 months, the IPPC ePhyto Steering Group will complete a proof-of-concept pilot project involving 14 countries. Some countries will use their current national ePhyto systems, and others will use the generic national system. Participating countries include Australia, Chile, China, Ecuador, Egypt, Ghana, Guatemala, Kenya, South Korea, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Samoa, Sri Lanka, and the United States.
“After the pilot, we will be analyzing what worked, what didn’t, and what issues need to be resolved,” Dellis said. “Then it’s on to implementing the initial system globally. That will be a multi-year effort, but well worth the time and investment. And one day, we will finally say goodbye to paper certificates forever.”
To learn more about the ePhyto Hub, visit the IPPC’s ePhyto page, or email Dellis at Christian.B.Dellis@aphis.usda.gov.