Coronavirus scare: India orders checking of Chinese agri, livestock imports

The sector seems to have played a decisive role in several seats in both the states
India has ordered that agriculture and livestock shipments from China be checked for the deadly coronavirus that has led to more than 900 deaths and upwards of 40,000 cases in mainland China.

"Commodity imports from China should be thoroughly checked, and samples should be tested in laboratories before according import clearance," stated a notification by the Directorate of Plant Protection, Quarantine, and Storage which was sent to importers, exporters and plant quarantine offices nationwide on February 5.

The department oversees integrated pest management in crop production programmes and monitors potential pests, which may lead to crop damage. The government classifies 'pests' as any species, strain or biotype of plant, animal or pathogenic agent that may prove injurious to domestic plants and plant products.

The department has also asked quarantine officials stationed at ports to ensure that samples are sent to Indian Council of Agricultural Research units if local laboratories don't have necessary facilities to study viruses.

However, an official said the latest notification does not prohibit imports from India of agricultural commodities, instead aims to check whether agricultural goods are showing traces of the virus that may become a pest to India's crop and livestock ecosystem. “There's always a chance that the virus amplifies in plant hosts and, thereby, we need to research whether agro produce from China is infected with the virus,” he added.

In 2018-19, India’s total import of agricultural and allied commodities from China was $282 million, down 19 per cent from the previous year. Major inbound goods comprise animal feed, kidney beans, bamboos, and wheat gluten, among others, according to the Agriculture Ministry.

The coronavirus outbreak was initially traced to wild animals sold at a wet market in the Chinese city of Wuhan. Now, genetic comparison studies at South China Agricultural University in Guangzhou have identified the Chinese pangolin, an anteater, as the potential source of the virus outbreak.

The government is yet to impose any restrictions on the overall imports from China. Officials at both Directorate General of Foreign Trade and Central Board of Indirect Taxes and Customs, responsible for drafting trade legislation and imposing them, said they are monitoring the situation. "While we are monitoring the situation, blanket restrictions on imports of non-agricultural goods are not possible since the current technology at ports of entry doesn't allow detection of virus in shipments," a DGFT official said. The Indian Institute of Foreign Trade has urged precautionary steps to monitor agricultural, marine, and food imports from China. However, suggestions by experts to provide protective gear to workers stationed at ports who handle such imports have not yet been accepted by the government.

At risk

• $282 million worth of agricultural and allied commodities were imported from China in 2018-19
• The government is yet to impose restrictions on imports from China
• Quarantine officials at ports asked to ensure that samples are sent to ICAR units, if local laboratories don't have necessary facilities 
• Animal feed, kidney beans, bamboos, and wheat gluten are among major imports 
• Studies have found Chinese pangolin (pictured inset) as the potential source of the virus outbreak

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