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The pandemic of the plant world

19/04/2021 - Sophie Colvine
Following reports from several tomato processors and growers in Europe and North America that some tomato seed varieties were not available or that delivery was delayed before the current planting season, we investigated by contacting several seed companies and the American Seed trade Association (ASTA) who provided us with clarifications.
In November 2019, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) in the USA issued a Federal Order imposing restrictions on imports of tomato and pepper seed lots, transplants, and fruit into the USA from all countries where tomato brown rugose fruit virus (ToBRFV) had been reported. In June 2020, APHIS amended the import requirements for tomato and pepper fruit for consumption by adding restrictions for tomatoes and peppers to additional countries. These mean that shipments of tomato or pepper seeds or propagative plant materials from all countries must be accompanied by a phytosanitary certificate or a re-export phytosanitary certificate with an additional declaration certifying that the lots fulfil the additional requirements prior to importation into the United States and territories.
TOBRFV was also added to the European and Mediterranean Plant Protection Organization (EPPO) Alert List in January 2019 and to the EPPO A2 “List of pests recommended for regulation as quarantine pests” in 2020. Phytosanitary measures to prevent the introduction of ToBRFV were introduced in 2020 stipulating that seeds should be produced in a pest free production site for ToBRFV established according to EPPO Standard, produced from parent plants that have been inspected and tested, be of varieties known to be fully resistant to ToBRFV, or have been directly tested. Imports of seeds into the EU or exchanges between EU countries are subject to a phytosanitary passport guaranteeing that the seeds have been tested and found exempt of the virus. 
At the time of writing, 23 countries have specific import requirements for ToBRFV.
Because the production of the F1 varieties of tomato seeds planted for the fresh market and for processing is very labour intensive, these activities are mainly conducted in countries where labour costs are low, and notably in Asia (China, India, Thailand, etc.) and in South America. Seeds are then mostly exported to a second country for processing and packing (Europe, North America), before being sent to their final destination. This means that the same lot of seeds has to be tested and certified several times before reaching the country where it will be planted.
While testing certificates were made compulsory, the EU has only approved one method for testing, while in the US no method had been validated until very recently. As testing must be done in government or accredited private laboratories in the country of production before shipping this has created a bottleneck in the few laboratories which could perform tests as their capacity is limited. This has led to delays of up to ten weeks to obtain the results. 
Moreover, the covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the problem in two ways: because the tests are performed using the same PCR methods as for the covid-19 viruses, meaning that supplies for reagents and testing equipment are in high demand, and the reduction of the number of international flights, especially between Asia and Europe, leading to more delays in shipping samples for testing. 
All these requirements and delays in testing have had some consequences in the supply of seeds for the 2021 tomato processing season. The impact has mainly been in delays in the availability of seeds for planting, with notably some of the newer varieties for which no stocks was available not being shipped in time for sowing and having to be replaced by other (often older, more established) varieties for which stock was already available in the country. 
This also is having some effect on the plant breeding efforts as the seeds have to be exchanged between the research centres where they are developed and countries where they are being tested and multiplied. Samples of seeds are submitted to the same regulations and tested, which can sometimes be an issue due to the high number of seeds needed for testing compared with the number of seeds available, and also additional costs. 
All seed companies are working to make sure there are no issues in the supply of seeds to all growers for the next season as more laboratories are registered for testing. They are also working in coordination with the various seed trade organisations and governments to develop guidance to authorise third party testing and to review the requirements for testing and certification as the ToBRFV represents a low risk for open field production and is absent from the surface of the commercial seeds after cleaning and processing before shipping. 
For further information:
Phytosanitary regulations 
APHIS: Information on ToBRFV & Q&A on marketing orders
EU: August 2020 Regulation on import of tomatoes & seeds 

EPPO: Datasheet on ToBRFV 
GNIS: Informations concernant le ToBRFV (in French)   
Related companies

American Seed Trade Association

Professional or non-profit organisation See details
Related articles

EU: new measures to prevent the spread of ToBRFV

27/08/2020 See details

USDA: action to protect U.S. from ToBRFV

26/11/2019 See details





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