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The IPPC ePhyto Solution – Enhancing safety in trade and global cooperation!

02 July 202114 min reading

“The grain trade sees the ePhyto Solution ((electronic phytosanitary certificate) as an important part of the drive to streamline border processes, reduce time for cargo clearance, and reduce unnecessary cost burdens in trade. I encourage all stakeholders to get involved in this project. The greater accessibility to this platform, the greater the benefits that will be realized for global trade.”

Alejandra Danielson Castillo Regional Director for South Asia U.S. Grains Council, Co-Chair for the IPPC ePhyto Solution Industry Advisory Group

Covid-19 has led to disruptions of global supply chains and highlighted the need to have systems and processes in place that allow for safely and efficiently exchanging trade documents. Global trading operations of plant products rely on crucial communication and transparency of phytosanitary requirements to protect plant health and ensure international unrestricted and, safe trade of goods. Phytosanitary certificates facilitate such trade and benefit plant production sectors as well as consumers. Electronic certification as part of a broader endeavor for trade facilitation has proven itself indispensable during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, to maintain continuity of agricultural trade despite grounded and high cost of air traffic and related postal crisis. Unfortunately, many paperless measures taken will end with the nationally taken emergency measures or have been taken in a fragmented manner with no globally uniform approach. The IPPC ePhyto Solution has been deployed showing its crisis resilience and reason for being during the Covid-19 pandemic.

ePhyto is short for “electronic phytosanitary certificate”. The ePhyto Solution is the electronic certification system that is made up of three core components:

  1. A central server (Hub): a system to facilitate the exchange of the ePhytos between National Plant Protection Organizations (NPPO’s)
  2. A Generic ePhyto National System (GeNS): a centralized web-based system that allows countries without their own system to produce, send, and receive ePhytos through the Hub
  3. Harmonization: harmonized and standardized approach to format, structure, and codes (where applicable) in the certificate exchange process.

The ePhyto Solution was designed to significantly improve security, border efficiency and global coverage, making the movement of goods across borders safe, faster, and cheaper.  More importantly, the 2019 UNESCAP/ADB Innovation Award-winning IPPC ePhyto Solution helps countries comply with the Trade Facilitation Agreement of the World Trade Organization (WTO), specifically Articles 7.9 (release of perishable goods) and 10.1 (simplifying formalities and documentation requirements for cross-border trade). The Solution also meets the requirements of International Standard for Phytosanitary Measures (ISPM) 12 Annex 1.

Now more than ever, work is underway to augment global implementation of the Solution which aims to implement an accessible way for all governments to exchange phytosanitary certificates electronically via a global Hub. It originally brought together 10 countries and now around 95 are registered in the Hub, and 32 through GenS, with over 1 million certificates exchanged as of May 2021. The work is being led and supported by the International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC), the Standards and Trade Development Facility (STDF), the United Nations International Computing Centre (UNICC) and government funders. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is a supporter of this work as well.

The system is effortlessly handling approximately 80,000 certificates per month, with the capacity to handle (in the current configuration) up to 100,000 certificates per day.

Recent success stories among governmental plant protection authorities have included:

  • The integration of the ePhyto Solution with the European Union’s in-house digitalization platform “TRACES”
  • United States active exchanges with 48 countries
  • Argentina’s 100% paperless implementation with four countries
  • Adoption in Korea “across all commodities” from May 2021
  • Uganda’s decision to choose the grains and pulses sector to begin full adoption in November 2020
  • Onboarding and active testing between Argentina and China

The grain trade sees the ePhyto Solution as an important part of the drive to streamline border processes, reduce time for cargo clearance, and reduce unnecessary cost burdens in trade. Bearing in mind the government-to-government nature of phytosanitary certificate exchange, anecdotal reports from the United States phytosanitary authority APHIS show a cost saving of around 25USD per ePhyto case study. However, other benefits noted include greater time efficiencies in documentation creation and exchange, reduction of time spent on customs clearance processes, and greater collaboration amongst different stakeholders.

Our work as the grain trade on the ePhyto is growing as more and more countries and industries adopt the Solution, and there is an increasing focus on interoperability with the private sector. Some key points to bear in mind for our grain sector are as follows:

  • The grain trade remains supportive of the wholesale adoption of a fully functioning ePhyto exchange model with the proactive involvement of the entire supply chain
  • The ultimate aim is for there to be no requirements to maintain paper certificates
  • It will be crucial for private sector operators to continue well-established, efficient trading practices that currently underpin the supply chain
  • The grain trade supports the use of the defined harmonized message schema in the ePhyto Solution and encourages governments, particularly those of strategic importance for the grain industry, to support implementation as quickly as possible
  • The grain trade calls for government support as it aims to provide practical insights on the commercial impacts of the system via the “industry case studies”, which will ultimately contribute to a strengthened cost-benefit analysis and a more workable ePhyto system.

However, it is critical that participation in the ePhyto Solution is representative and inclusive of all industries and countries.  The ePhyto Solution Steering Group identified the need to have industry input and participation in the Solution and created the Industry Advisory Group (IAG) to provide practical guidance and advice to the IPPC Secretariat on the design, development, and deployment of the ePhyto Solution as well as providing expertise regarding the commercial implications of the Solution. The IAG membership includes includes representatives of:

  • Federation of Cocoa Commerce Limited
  • International Community of Breeders of Asexually Reproduced Ornamental and Fruit Varieties (CIOPORA)
  • International Grain Trade Coalition (IGTC)
  • International Seed Federation (ISF)
  • International Wood Products Association (IWPA)
  • Union Fleurs (International Flower Trade Association)
  • European Seed Association (ESA)
  • Europatat – European potato trade association
  • Freshfel Europe – European fresh fruit and vegetables chain
  • National Alfalfa and Forage Association (NAFA)
  • The Global Express Association
  • International Cotton Advisory Committee

Observers of the IAG include the Global Alliance on Trade Facilitation (GATF) that is resourced by the World Economic Forum (WEF). In 2018, the International Grain Trade Coalition (IGTC) was elected Chair of the International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC)’s global Industry Advisory Group (IAG).

The IAG welcomes the reactivity of many countries in the world to implement contingency plans that include acceptance of digital attachments, signatures, and copies for trade related documents during the still ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. The global pandemic has once more underlined the need for trade facilitation and using digitalization to make plant product trade more crisis resilient and keep goods moving, despite limited staff capacity or arising health threats for workers.

Nonetheless, the IAG is concerned, that many countries have taken a very individual path to digital certification, often with a deadline related to the prospective end of the emergency measures, which has already led to 1) a global fragmentation with different often bilateral transmission solutions which create additional work and costs for operators and National Plant Protection Organizations (NPPOs) 2) non-safe transmission systems vulnerable to fraud and 3) an exclusion of developing countries not yet connected to any electronic transmission systems, leading to the exclusion from global plant trade supply chains.

In the last five years, the IAG has been able to successfully recruit, organize, and increase presence at several industry meetings, capture data, and present findings to bodies such as the IPPC, FAO, industry, governments, and trade associations.  The IAG also assisted in the creation of marketing materials to promote and increase country adoption of the ePhyto Solution, as well as champion the global discussion on the Solution.

IAG representatives are working to provide expertise in the next phase of the ePhyto Solution by organizing case studies. The purpose of the industry case studies is to identify issues – technical, regulatory, business flow, or otherwise – and to provide clarity to all parties regarding the ePhyto process and how it can benefit suppliers and end users. Results from these industry case studies aim to inform best practices for trade to move forward with electronic documents and eventually, paperless execution.

Since 2018, 43 case studies have been conducted, mainly in the grains sector (Argentina-USA, Argentina-Chile, USA-New Zealand) but there have also been a limited number in cotton and seeds. Since Mexico adopted the Solution, exchanges with the United States have allowed the grain trade to perform case studies across different transportation methods – vessel, rail, and truck. This has highlighted the truly influential benefits of a safe and secure exchange platform. The opportunity for case studies with the European Union (EU) should not be overlooked given that all EU Member States can now interface with ePhyto through the TRACES mechanism. IGTC has also been asked to volunteer for case studies in other countries that have recently come online such as Morocco.

Ultimately, the IAG is committed to the following guiding principles:

  • Active participation in system development
  • Participation in pilots and testing
  • Participation in IPPC support for implementation
  • Collaboration with NPPOs to develop efficient processes and best practices
  • Collaborate with IPPC on system enhancements

Up to now, there are positive indications from the case studies that “ePhyto contributes to greater efficiency and ease of export/import processes”. No major unintended consequences have been identified. However, the case studies have also highlighted the need for greater collaboration between governments, industry, and regional plant protection organizations (NPPO’s) to increase implementation but also improve communication around the Solution and identify ways for each stakeholder to contribute to the adoption and onboarding of the Solution.

The IAG is once again partnering with the IPPC Secretariat to host ePhyto Solution workshops to help facilitate communication between importers, exporters, trade association and NPPO’s on the benefits of adopting the Solution and eventual use of the Hub or the generic systems, GenS. Furthermore, the goal is to bring visibility and understanding of the status of the ePhyto implementation in each country to help foster stronger relationships amongst all interested stakeholders. The Solution is only successful to the extent that all stakeholders are engaged and remain so to ensure the sustainable and consistent use of this trade facilitation tool.

To date, three workshops have been successfully launched with the Republic of Korea, the Dominican Republic, and the Bahamas. However, several more are in process. The next workshop is scheduled with Costa Rica ON August 4, 2021.

Even though 95 countries have adopted the Solution so far, many are at different stages of adoption. The goal of the Solution is to ensure that global adoption occurs. In the picture below, green signifies all the countries fully onboarded into the Hub. It is critical to ensure the map is fully green as soon as possible. As more countries adopt the Solution, the greater the opportunity for the physical trade, in all industries, to utilize the benefits of the Solution.

The ePhyto Solution is the only initiative post-Covid that is attracting large numbers of governments taking positive action to implement trade facilitation. According to FAO reports, Covid was a time when trade restrictions were imposed at record numbers, the ePhyto Solution can be a beacon guiding governments on what trade facilitation should look like moving forward.

Additionally, the grain trade has for several years been promoting the need for interoperability of the ePhyto Solution with other digital platforms. This is important for use alongside government-led platforms such as single window automated systems. The World Customs Organization (WCO) is fully supportive of this effort and a “Channel” has already been built and is fully operational with the EU TRACES system since May 2020. Efforts are underway to use the channel for other single windows users, such as Mexico and Brazil.

Equally important for smooth trade is interoperability with industry digital platforms. That’s why we have volunteered to coordinate tests of an ePhyto “Channel” that will link up with the private sector. The ePhyto Solution is attracting much attention from digital tech innovation companies who see value in having an interface. A number of companies have expressed an interest in testing and the door is open for more to be involved if they meet the baseline technical specifications.

This is a strictly non-competitive environment for private sector actors to “test” whether their digital platforms can interact with the ePhyto Solution and it is important to remember that access to ePhytos, just like access to paper phytos, will be administered by governmental National Plant Protection Organizations (NPPOs). The final objective is to ensure a Channel component that can serve not only the whole grains industry, but all plant product sectors that use phytos – this should be a public good!

The grain trade is focusing on efforts to increase communication and information sharing on digitalization.

Several common priorities are emerging:

  • The status quo involves common challenges faced by the agricultural commodity industry: inefficient processes around documentation; labour intensive audit trails; long processing times; lack of common standards
  • there is a need for industry to collaborate to improve traceability, security, efficiency and transparency
  • digital documentation is most useful for the international grain trade when applied to the entire flow of documentation
  • efforts are already underway to invest in and implement digital documentation: bills of lading, country of origin certificates, barge documentation
  • the applicability of block chain for international grain trade operations
  • security is an absolute “must” and investment will not be made in digital systems that cannot guarantee security
  • the progress of innovation and adoption can vary for different types of documents, with the phytosanitary certificate historically “lagging behind” in terms of reliance on paper

In the face of this global pandemic, we are seeing true advantages and real time benefits that a fully functional and accessible ePhyto Solution, have brought our industries and international trade.

To increase global participation in the Solution, the IAG and the IPPC ePhyto Solution have created guides on “how-to” join the Hub or GenS for countries and industry participants.

I encourage all stakeholders to get involved in this project. The greater accessibility to this platform, the greater the benefits that will be realized for global trade. If you are interested to learn more information,  please visit the IPPC ePhyto Solution page at https://www.ephytoexchange.org/landing/index.html .

Despite the economic downturn suffered under the Covid-19 pandemic, there are indicators that economies are coming back online. The pandemic showed us how resilient many of our protocols, regulations, and processes are. Yet, challenges in managing an ever-growing population, which results in greater and more complex trade patterns, and ensuring that our critical resources – human, capital, and technology – are adequately funded will continue to be critical to ensure that trade continues unhindered.

Digital readiness in the supply chain has been revealed by the current pandemic as an urgent and critical need. Electronic phytosanitary certificates as part of a broader endeavour for trade facilitation has proven itself indispensable during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. The Solution has proven that it can be a tool to enhance global collaboration in a safe and secure way.

The IPPC ePhyto Solution has therefore gained more significance than ever. One global solution, which abolishes the need for bilateral negotiations between NPPO’s and integrates a low-cost level potentially all trading countries of the world through a simple XML-language secured Hub/GenS-transmission solution. While the onboarding to the ePhyto Hub is accelerating, pushed by the challenging trade environment under pandemic conditions, the usability is challenged by administrative and regulatory barriers and competing bilateral discussions and implementation of national solutions. A uniformed and harmonized implementation of the ePhyto Solution ensures trade can continue in a safe, undisrupted, and fast manner, - resilient to other crisis and ensure the stability of the food chain, without interruption or losses.

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