Importance of Pest Free Areas (PFA)

It is estimated that cultivated plant species are hosts to between 200 and 500 pest species, among them, insects, virus, fungi and bacteria. Countries consider many of these organisms as pests of concern, and the economic damage they cause to worldwide agriculture may reach billions of dollars annually. Due to the increase in international movement of goods, people and commodities, natural and national borders which at one point were efficient barriers against pest spread are now facing severe pest pressure. 

This has compelled agricultural growers’ associations, plant health state governments and federal authorities to join efforts in favor of an integrated approach to pest control in order to reduce pest prevalence and reduce their detrimental effects. To this end, pest free areas have been gradually established in agricultural production, particularly to facilitate commercial acceptance of these commodities both domestically and internationally.

Some importing countries have negotiated, the acceptance of agricultural commodities from what are called “pest free areas”, which simply stated is a phytosanitary measure that provides evidence that a particular pest is not present in the area. Pest free area is defined as: an area in which a specific pest is absent as demonstrated by scientific evidence and in which, where appropriate, this condition is being officially maintained”; in other words, it is a geographic area where a specific pest was never present, is absent at specific times of the year or where the specific pest has been eliminated, using other phytosanitary measures. Pest free areas are one of the options to mitigate pest risks in international trade for regulated plants or plant products, and which is used to prevent pest introduction and spread.

The term pest free area (PFA) covers a wide range of areas, from an entire country to an area located within a country where the pest is present. Technically, there are three types of PFA: 1) an entire country, 2) a non-infested part of a country with a limited infested area and 3) a non-infested part of country within a generally infested area. In each of these cases, the delimitation of the PFA will be related to the biology of the pest. PFAs are generally delimited by easily recognized borders, which may coincide with the pest’s biological limits.

Pest exclusion within a determined area includes pest mitigation activities by all actors involved in the production chain and may include actions by the general public. Thus, the declaration of a pest free area is the result of a joint effort among federal, state governments and growers, and others who perform the corresponding activities to eliminate the specific pest or disease from the area.

With globalization, countries have modified their approaches to phytosanitary security. For example, they have changed their plant health regulations to recognize pest free areas, which once established, bring great benefits that result in higher production with a quality that meets national and international market demands, and with lower commodity prices. However, awareness of the need to constantly maintain such free areas is crucial, which includes the implementation and enforcement of measures to preserve their pest free status. Thus, the cost to implement and maintain PFAs can be high.

With a free area, trade of regulated commodities can occur without other actions to eliminate pests, because the commodities come from areas where the pest is not present. An importing country with existing PFAs can adopt stronger phytosanitary measures to protect their PFAs against the entry of infested commodities from other countries or areas within the country itself. Likewise, for exporting countries, having free areas is highly beneficial to the consumer, who has access to high quality commodities, but also to  growers who benefit from increased productivity and competitiveness of their commodities allowing for export to other countries. Properly managed and maintained PFAs will result in no trade restrictions for commodities, resulting in greater access to better markets with more competitive prices.  

For example, Mexico has benefited from having fruit fly free areas and exporting fruits without using additional phytosanitary treatments. The success of exports from pest free areas is based on the implementation of stringent national regulations and the adoption of International Standards for Phytosanitary Measures (ISPMs) of the International Plant Protection Convention.

The economic benefit resulting from a free area includes the avoidance of production loses; chemical treatments such as pre-harvest pesticide applications are avoided as well as post-harvest phytosanitary treatments; the ability to trade commodities without additional measures contributes to preserving the environment, as pesticide applications are greatly reduced. 

Finally, the positive impact on the quality of the human diet is evident when consuming produce grown with the least amount of pesticide residues be it cultivated, homegrown (self-consumption) or collected in the wild.