Canada’s defenses against invasive plant species, plant pests and plant diseases have been found by its auditor general to be leaky at best with a backlog of incomplete risk assessments and misplaced priorities.
Auditor General Sheila Fraser and the new federal commissioner of the environment and sustainable development, Scott Vaughan, jointly released reports Thursday showing Canada to be slipping in its assessments of risk and of its own programs’ effectiveness.
Fraser on Thursday urged the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) to run a “comprehensive assessment of the way it handles imports under its plant health program.”
“The sheer volume of imports makes it impossible to inspect all shipments,” Fraser said. “Given that the volume has more than doubled in the last seven years, it is critical that (CFIA) focus on the greatest risks.”
Fraser said her office has found that CFIA management “has no systematic way of knowing if its procedures are adequately designed and operating effectively to keep invasive alien species from entering and becoming established in Canada.”
Invasive alien plant and plant pests can threaten the environment and the economy, she said, and can make “severe and often irreversible” impacts on native ecosystems in their new habitats.
“In addition, they can threaten Canada’s agriculture and forestry sectors, which produce goods valued at about $100 billion a year.”
Fraser, in her report, said CFIA’s pest surveys “focus almost exclusively on known invaders rather than identifying potential new threats before they become established.”
As well, she said, CFIA “has difficulty with timely delivery of its plant health risk assessments. At the time of the audit, the backlog of uncompleted assessments amounted to more than (CFIA) can normally complete in a year.”
CFIA’s national inspection targets are also inconsistently interpreted and applied across Canada, she said. For example, “67 per cent inspection” is interpreted by some staff to mean 67 per cent of every shipment must be inspected; to others, it means 67 per cent of all shipments in a given year must be inspected.
Moreover, Fraser’s office said, “high-risk imported commodities that are subject to 100 per cent inspection are sometimes released for distribution without being inspected.”
Nothing to show
Vaughan, who Fraser announced in May 2008 as the new federal environment commissioner, offered criticism of the lack of follow-up on Ottawa’s environmental initiatives as to whether they produced any measurable benefit.
Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada was among the departments noted in Vaughan’s report Thursday, citing hundreds of millions it spent on environmental programming.
“While agriculture generates billions of dollars for Canada’s economy, pollution from the farm sector also represents a significant environmental burden,” Vaughan said. “Public concern about its effects is growing.”
To that end, AAFC has spent $370 million to encourage farm practices that protect the environment. “However, after five years, the department cannot show whether these environmental programs are leading to improvements in environmental quality on the farm.”
Vaughan also ripped Environment Canada, which he said issues about 10,000 severe weather warnings a year but does not have an effective national approach to verifying the timeliness and accuracy of its severe weather warnings.
“Severe weather events like tornadoes and blizzards can result in injury or loss of life, and cause significant damage. Being able to issue advance warnings accurately allows Canadians to prepare,” he said.
Environment Canada, he said, also needs better information on the state of its weather monitoring network, such as radars, surface, and upper-air observation stations. “Better information would help it decide whether it is more costly to keep repairing equipment than to replace it.”
As well, he said, Environment Canada “lacks an up-to-date strategy for meeting such challenges as putting a robust and useful system in place to verify the effectiveness of severe weather warnings, managing its monitoring networks over their life cycle with limited resources, and implementing a modern workstation for its forecasters.”
The department’s weather service faces “fundamental challenges and risks to the durability of its systems,” Vaughan said. “We recommend that it adopt a long-term strategy to guide its decisions.”