TT Talk - National security: the invasion of pests

Man cleaning shipping container

2020 has clearly increased awareness of microbiological risks. This has set the populations of whole nations on unaccustomed regimes. While such viral concerns continue, equal challenges are being recognised in relation to the potential for movement of visible pests through the intermodal supply chain globally.

The threat to life on this planet from the COVID-19 virus must have reached the consciousness of every person during the course of this last year. For much of the world’s population the result has been levels of discomfort, disruption and discombobulation, including more than 1.5 million who have died as a result and the impact that will have had on families, friendship groups and communities, amongst others.

The affects of the virus have reverberated through all economies and businesses; the global supply chain has faced much through the year, with the plight of seafarers particularly acute.


It is perhaps salutary that some of the countries that have been most effective in avoiding the contagion and, where it did occur, containing any spread are island nations. In this context, the globalised culture, where many have enjoyed widespread travel for business or pleasure, has been replicated in the global supply chain – and in measure fueled by containerisation (see the joint TT Club/McKinsey report “Brave New World”. 

“maritime freight containers and their cargoes have increasingly come under scrutiny, not least due to their innate intermodality”

There are justifiable concerns that global trade has facilitated the movement of invasive plant and animal species. Inevitably, there are numerous vectors by which this may happen, but maritime freight containers and their cargoes have increasingly come under scrutiny, not least due to their innate intermodality reaching far into hinterlands with relative ease and lack of control. Nevertheless, empirical data regarding the types and magnitude of pest risks associated with containers and their cargoes remains largely lacking.

TT Club published a TT Talk in 2017 outlining the risk of movement of pests in containers. Set up under the auspices of the International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC), a Sea Container Task Force has been investigating what options are available apart from establishing mandatory requirements. Supplementing the industry guidelines, IPPC has this year published a guide and a ready ‘infographic’ style leaflet to support all actors minimising visible pest contamination.

International Year of Plant Health 

Although this year is reaching its end, it is noteworthy that the United Nations declared 2020 as the ‘International Year of Plant Health’. The description bears pondering: “the year is a once in a lifetime opportunity to raise global awareness on how protecting plant health can help end hunger, reduce poverty, protect the environment, and boost economic development”. There are long term benefits globally in embracing the issues – a call to action for all.

The urgency of concern was valuably covered in the recent webinar hosted by Global Shippers Forum and ICHCA , including presentations on the issues in general and specific activities of the North American Sea Container Initiative (NASCI). 

As is often the case, it is not a lack of good materials on actions to address the issues, rather promoting understanding of how each individual involved from procurement, through packing and transport, all the way to local warehousing and distribution can fulfill their responsibilities.

Visible contamination

The focus here is on what can be detected visually. However, since not every responsible actor will physically see the potential contaminants, it is a matter of considering the origin of the goods being sourced, the location for packing, the season and biology of pests (when eggs or seeds are most likely), the compliance of the required packaging and the prevailing conditions at the time of packing the container(s). 

So, for example, a buyer in the destination country needs to investigate a wide range of factors beyond the requirements of the desired product – as, of course, does the a seller or producer. 

Similarly, forwarders and logistics operators should proactively enquire about the broad environmental conditions for packing – will a container be selected from a soil-based depot, will packing be carried out at night (attracting insects) or in rain, is the dunnaging compliant with IPPC’s ISPM 15 regulation?

Call to action

The impact on agriculture, forestry and broader environment from invasive pests transferred by cargo or containers can be devastating, affecting livelihoods, health and well-being over a much longer time horizon even than the current pandemic. Costs to respond to and manage invasive species grow exponentially as they take root in the new location or region; prevention is always more cost-effective. 

Against this backdrop, certain national governments are agitating for more rigorous action and proposing regulation, either nationally or internationally, to prevent the unwanted and generally inadvertent transfer of invasive plant and animal species.

Should joint government/business activities, such as exemplified by NASCI be deemed insufficient or ineffective, mandatory requirements will almost certainly load disproportionate – and unwelcome – compliance and enforcement costs across the industry. 

Mandatory requirements could be targeted at specific trade routes and pest risks, where the evidence justifies the action. Mooted inspection and certification regimes for empty and laden units may significantly impede trade and not necessarily solve the problem.

However, government appetite to include simple visual contaminant inspections into safety inspection regimes has so far been tepid, although such risk-complementary measures could clearly assist.

“all parties being aware, responsible, taking the matter seriously, and engaging actively and constructively with national/regional voluntary initiatives is urgently required”

Contamination by invasive species is almost always accidental or careless; all parties being aware, responsible, taking the matter seriously, and engaging actively and constructively with national/regional voluntary initiatives is urgently required in order to avert both the risks and burdensome regulation.

We hope that you have found the above interesting. If you would like further information, or have any comments, please email us, or take this opportunity to forward to any colleagues who you may feel would be interested.

We look forward to hearing from you.

Peregrine Storrs-Fox

Risk Management Director, TT Club


  • TT Talk 269 Chinese Translation 671 KB


    Download PDF

Peregrine Storrs-Fox

Risk Management Director