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Spotlight: Interview with Sarah Brunel on a food safety/plant health project

Posted on Thu, 10 Aug 2023, 07:30

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Photo: © FAO/Vladimir Mijatovic

We had a conversation with Sarah Brunel, Implementation and Facilitation Unit Lead at the IPPC Secretariat, who is working on an FAO project that has two components: promoting food safety and plant health. While most of our questions focused on the project, first we heard a bit about her story and where she comes from.

Sarah Brunel: I am from the south of France and have always had a passion for plants. For this reason, I chose to become an agricultural engineer. My first job was in the south of France working on invasive alien plants from an environmental perspective working for the Conservatoire National Botanique Méditerranéen de Porquerolles. Within this role I also worked with nurseries to ensure that invasive alien plants were not being sold across municipalities. Four years later, I had the opportunity to work on plant health from a regional respective when I joined EPPO, the European and Mediterranean Plant Protection Organization, and finally in 2014 I made the move to the International Plant Protection Convention Secretariat, a key motivator for me to further develop my expertise, this time from a global perspective focusing on the implementation of plant health standards and the Convention overall.

Now, over the course of almost a decade, have you noticed a difference in terms of international awareness with regard to how the importance of implementation is perceived? A change?

I see a shift towards the phytosanitary community recognizing the importance of implementation. Before, the focus was mainly on developing standards. The community is now understanding that International Standards for Phytosanitary Measures, or ISPMs, only have value if they are implemented effectively. This is why investing in the four main ways the IPPC Secretariat can support countries to implement ISPMs is critical: by developing guides and other training materials, organizing capacity development workshops, managing projects and tools and implementing Phytosanitary Capacity Evaluations, or PCEs.

What about at the government level? Have you noticed increased awareness there?

Yes, I have, particularly when it comes to increased trade and the effects of globalization, with an area of focus on the effects of climate change. Governments are ever more aware of the value of international trade and the fundamental role that protecting plant heath has in supporting their country’s economy and overall ecosystem, including our planet’s biodiversity.

That's reassuring. So let’s jump into the project “Strengthening Food Control and Phytosanitary Capacities and Governance”. Can you tell us a bit about the logic of the project and how the two components are carried out together?

In general, the two components of the project, food safety and plant health, along with animal health, are part of the bigger One Health strategic priority, an integrated and unifying approach, to balance and optimize the health of people, animals and the environment. We decided to start with food safety and plant health because both the IPPC Secretariat and the Food Safety Division are part of FAO, share similar objectives with the One Health agenda, and because the Food Control System Assessment Tool and the PCE process are complementary in what they allow countries to achieve.

Can you walk us through the process since activities have started in the plant health component?

The project is embedded in our global Phytosanitary Capacity Evaluation strategy as approved by our governing body, the Implementation and Capacity Development Committee. PCEs are led by national plant protection organizations (NPPOs) and enabled by IPPC - trained PCE facilitators to help countries evaluate their phytosanitary capabilities, whilst fully respecting a country’s confidentiality requirements.
This specific project includes the training of eight new PCE facilitators - an invaluable resource when carrying out these PCEs and a new regional and global resource for future PCEs that may take place. PCE facilitators follow a standard training course, developed and delivered by the IPPC Secretariat, and a whole process is in place to validate new PCE facilitators.
Candidates were selected, took part in a two-week in-person training course and, whilst being shadowed by existing PCE facilitators, are currently working with the NPPOs to carry out the PCE process in the nine countries.
Another key milestone of this project was selecting the nine out of 21 COMESA countries that would benefit from the project. This process followed very structured criteria, decided in collaboration with the Food Safety unit. Three main criteria were: firstly, whether a country had already undertaken an evaluation in the past five years, secondly, whether carrying out a PCE was in compliance with their country’s programing framework and, thirdly, whether the countries wanted to participate. In fact, the first ingredient for success is the country’s willingness and commitment to carry out the PCE process.

Can you give us a sense of the scope of the pool of PCE facilitators that you are training and that you intend to train with this project?

The goal is to increase the pool of PCE facilitators in the African region and more widely in the world. This allows countries to be more autonomous as they will already have trained PCE facilitators in the region when they decide to carry out a PCE in the future. These trained facilitators can be trusted as they have been trained and have gained the experience to implement the process and the PCE tool accurately.

And you mentioned earlier that there was a country that had completed a PCE within five years. So was that too early to do it again? What is the minimum amount of time for countries to conduct a subsequent PCE?

Five years is ideal because carrying out a PCE does require resources, both time-wise and financial. The PCE process, from start to finish, takes about one year and all key stakeholders within a country are involved. Stakeholders work together to define priorities and develop an implementable, costed-out workplan. It is advisable to wait five years before initiating a new PCE, to give the country enough time to implement and see the results of the first PCE before starting the whole process again.

I understand. Can you talk about this project within the wider context, both with the IPPC, within FAO and the longer-term objectives of both?

At a more macro level, this project is aligned with the UN’s SDGs – especially those regarding zero hunger, safe food and less economic barriers. The project is also in line with FAO’s Strategic Framework, including the One Health component, a priority for the whole organization and the Four Betters, specifically the Better Production goal. Within the IPPC community we have three objectives: food security, safe trade and environmental protection. Carrying out a PCE enables the country to understand how to strengthen its phytosanitary system and in doing so protect its plant health, meeting all three IPPC objectives.
The project also fits in with the sanitary and phytosanitary measures (SPS) strategy for Africa, aligned with the World Trade Organization, and our two sister organizations the Codex Alimentarius Commission and the World Organisation for Animal Health, to increase economic revenues through the safe trade of plants and agricultural products.

And in your experience, what are the three main areas where you really see that this project could make a change?

I think the main added value of the PCE tool is that it’s not an audit tool but rather the whole PCE process empowers countries to identify ways to strengthen their phytosanitary capacities. Nobody is telling a country what to do, the countries lead the whole process, supported by PCE facilitators who are trained to follow the agreed methodology.
A second aspect, which is very important, is the legal aspect. For any country to strengthen its phytosanitary system, a solid phytosanitary legal framework is indispensable. Which is what the PCE is bringing. In many countries where PCEs have been carried out, the process has allowed countries to identify phytosanitary laws and regulations that needed revising, which I consider an outstanding achievement.

That's great.

And the third aspect is a country’s phytosanitary stakeholder network’s commitment and involvement, working together and facilitating a process. The whole team comes together to work on a single objective which, depending on the priorities that the country identifies, may include the revision of a country’s phytosanitary legislation, a new phytosanitary strategy, a revised organigram or a new mission Statement for the organization. A PCE implementation usually comprises the involvement of the FAO national office, lawyers, multiple national organizations including exporters, customs organizations, universities, farmers and producers.

What do you hope for success to look like in like a year and a half or two years through this project?

I would like there to be nine successful PCEs that can become future success models, not only for Africa, but for the whole world to share their experience.
Each country is different. Each PCE is different. Through each PCE benefits are achieved at a national, regional and global level. We see this project as a big milestone for our PCE strategy overall with countries enabled to strengthen their phytosanitary systems through clear deliverables leading to increased safe trade, safeguarding food security and protecting plant health.

Originally published in the FAO Food Systems and Food Safety Division (ESF) website.

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