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Plant Protection Today - Cultivating a New Approach to Seed Health

Cultivating a New Approach to Seed Health
April 28, 2020

How PPQ Is Helping to Facilitate Healthy Seed Trade

By Heather Curlett

To be competitive in today’s global market, U.S. producers need access to diverse varieties of healthy seed from around the world. They also need sufficient safeguards to protect their industries against the introduction and distribution of damaging seed-borne diseases. That’s why USDA’s Plant Protection and Quarantine (PPQ) program has been working with the U.S. seed industry, international and domestic partners, and scientific organizations to develop smart regulatory strategies that will help reduce pest contamination during seed production and facilitate healthy seed trade.

A Complicated Pathway

The first step was understanding current seed production and trade practices. Working closely with the U.S. seed industry, we discovered that seeds travel a complex, multi-country route before they reach their final destination.

“Seed companies may locate breeding and multiplication programs in several countries, and they may distribute seeds from those countries to many other countries,” explained Senior Risk Manager Ed Podleckis. “In addition, they might export seeds produced in one country to a second country for processing. Then they may send the seeds to many other destinations—including back to the country of origin.”

To complicate matters, when seed is produced, the destination countries and their import requirements may not be known. In fact, a number of years can pass between when the seed is produced and when it is exported to its final destinations, making it difficult to verify that the seeds meet the importing country’s phytosanitary requirements.

Creating a Seed-Specific Standard

To address some of these issues, PPQ worked through the International Plant Protection Convention—an international forum made up of 184 member countries, including the United States—to adopt the International Standard for Phytosanitary Measures (ISPM 38) for the international movement of seeds.

“This standard helps national plant protection organizations identify, assess, and manage the pest risk associated with the global movement of seeds for planting,” said John Greifer, Assistant Deputy Administrator for International Phytosanitary Standards. “Its guidance harmonizes how countries inspect, sample, and test seeds and certify them for export and re-export.”

Regionally, the North American Plant Protection Organization (NAPPO) and PPQ are promoting the implementation of this standard throughout the Western Hemisphere. In 2019, NAPPO, with PPQ support, hosted an Americas-focused ISPM 38 implementation workshop in Costa Rica.

A Systematic Approach to Reducing Seed-Borne Diseases

Domestically, PPQ has been working in collaboration with the U.S. seed industry, the National Plant Board, and academia to develop a holistic approach to systematically reduce pest contamination risks across the seed production continuum. This approach is known as “ReFreSH,” short for the Regulatory Framework for Seed Health.

ReFreSH is based on the internationally recognized principles for reducing the risk of safety hazards in food. It will leverage industry best practices and use testing and integrated pest management measures at critical points in the seed production process to verify seed health and make international seed movement safer.

“In the last 2 years, we’ve made significant strides in developing ReFreSH,” Podleckis said. “Specifically, we completed the ReFreSH concept paper that describes the reasons for ReFreSH and the process used to design it. We also drafted a ReFreSH accreditation standard, which outlines participation requirements as well as participant roles and responsibilities.”

Currently, PPQ is preparing a ReFreSH Manual, which participating entities will use as a template for describing the procedures and processes they will use to meet the accreditation standard. PPQ has started developing a trial project with Brazil that will allow us to monitor the effectiveness of a systems approach and make adjustments before we fully implement ReFreSH. Our counterparts in Mexico, Chile, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand have also expressed interest in developing systems approach pilots with us.

International Support Increases

The concept behind this U.S.-developed approach is gaining strength internationally. In August 2018, NAPPO, with support from other regional and national plant protection organizations and industry experts, proposed that the IPPC develop a systems approach annex to the international standard on seed movement.

This annex would support national plant protection organization’s accreditation of systems approaches that incorporate existing industry seed production practices, which would provide a valuable alternative to the costly and lengthy consignment-by-consignment certification approach used now.

“The IPPC has made the annex a high priority for development,” Greifer noted.

Next Steps

“Although full implementation of ReFreSH is still some years away, 2019 marked another year of solid progress,” Podleckis said. “PPQ is working to complete the manual and establish first bilateral then multilateral pilots to validate the effectiveness of ReFreSH in reducing pest risks and facilitating safe seed trade.”


The United Nations declared 2020 as the International Year of Plant Health(IYPH) and then extended the celebration through July1, 2021. This worldwide campaign is promoting the value of our precious plant resources and the need to safeguard them against invasive pests. To celebrate IYPH, each month Plant Protection Today is highlighting how PPQ safeguards America’s agricultural and natural resources against invasive pests, and facilitates the safe trade of agricultural products. Read our article on IYPH to learn more—and how you can join this once-in-a-lifetime event!

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