PLANT protection is of utmost importance in any country, particularly where agriculture is the backbone of the economy. No one can import or export as well as propagate and sell a plant without passing through a formal procedure of registration with and licensing by the authority concerned.

The departments relevant to the plant industry are responsible for maintaining plant health by inspecting warehouses and/or quarantine centres for plant species, nurseries, orchards, greenhouses, sawmills and transportation pathways for detecting and identifying threats to the plants and thus preventing the spread of plant diseases, harmful insects, and invasive plants.

They also certify both foreign and domestic plant movement and, if needed, issue quarantine orders to stop the shipment of plants suspected of harbouring disease or pests. Thousands of inspections are conducted and millions of plants are inspected each year under the procedure.

But, the situation is quite contrary to the world-recognised practices in Pakistan, where seeds and plants are imported, especially through Afghanistan, without any hindrance. The Department of Plant Protection (DPP) continues to be severely understaffed, poorly trained and ill-equipped for decades because policymakers lack awareness about its significance and inevitability vis-à-vis plant health.

Influential lobbies either use their clout to import without any inspection or opt to smuggle it into the country

The department has been run on an ad hoc basis without a regular head since 1998, when its then director-general had retired. Since then, non-technical people, civil bureaucrats, retired army men and even pilots have been leading it until recently, when a senior official from the department itself was given temporary charge of it.

Only a 16-member staff had been ‘running’ the DPP till the recruitment of 80 more employees last year on the persistent demand of acting DG Allah Ditta Abid, who has been given charge for a three-year term.

“Though the new appointments proved to be oxygen for the DPP, the department needs a minimum of 324 people working in optimal capacity,” says Mr Abid. The government has been requested to at least make these three-year appointments permanent if, for want of funds, more members cannot be added to the staff, he added.

Shortage of staff is hampering the DPP work as it has to hold negotiations with destination countries for food exports and prepare dossiers consisting of hundreds of pages for each crop, detailing phytosanitary compliance reports, etc. Exports worth billions of dollars may suffer if the papers are not properly handled.

The countries that have developed their agriculture sectors have promoted their respective plant protection departments in every manner. An official of the Ministry of National Food Security & Research says that China refused to accept our rice exports two years ago, citing the presence of coronavirus in the consignments.

When contested and the issue was raised with the government at the highest level, the Chinese authorities suggested that Pakistan’s Plant Protection Department should coordinate with their Chinese counterparts to resolve the matter as they could do nothing in this regard. The Pakistan authorities acted accordingly and began implementing China-specific regulations and taking specific precautionary measures to restore the exports, he adds.

But influential lobbies and mafias, both in export and import sectors, are taking advantage of the ‘headless’ and poorly staffed department, causing financial losses due to the ban on exports by certain countries and tarnishing the national image.

Rafiuddin, who works with a vegetable export company, recalls that all food exports to Mexico have been banned since 2014 when a chilli consignment was found carrying Khapra beetle, a pest in grain storage. “The export consignment had been shipped without inspection by the plant protection officials under political pressure and the country is suffering its negative impact as Mexico refuses to accept any food import from Pakistan since then.”

Similarly, a coffin-fly, which comes on an animal’s dead body, had been discovered in a citrus fruit shipment to Russia and thus mandarin imports were banned, which were restored only after efforts over several years.

The case of imports is no different: every kind of crop, grain, fruit and plant is brought from abroad without any inspection for any likely pest or disease. Exotic plants can be found at nurseries in each city and town as they are mostly being smuggled into the country.

A risk analysis has to be conducted to import each plant in cooperation with the country of origin to know the pests and diseases that attack this type of species. The routes and mechanisms that should be used for transporting the plant and the measures to be taken for mitigating risks so that the pests or diseases are not shifted to Pakistan have to be identified.

Imports are formally allowed only if the country of origin ensures that the risks have been eliminated. Influential lobbies and individuals abhorring the lengthy procedure either use their clout to import the plant without any inspection or simply smuggle it into the country. Afghanistan is serving as the ‘free zone’ for unchecked import and smuggling of plants.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, September 26th, 2022

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