More money and more experts – the answer to UK plant health issues?

As part of their inquiry into Tree Health and Plant Biosecurity, last week the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee released their 10th report scrutinising the UK government’s approaches regarding plant health. Whilst welcoming recent work of the government, they laid out a series of recommendations which they believe will be crucial to address if action surrounding this issue is to be successful.

Safeguarding plant health is one of Defra’s top four priorities, and in recent times there has been increasing work done to address the issue across the UK. Notably, the Tree Health and Plant Biosecurity Taskforce that was set up to provide expertise and recommendations has been crucial in progressing action within this area and highlighting approaches for identifying and managing current and emerging threats. Their final report was published last year and several of their recommendations, such as appointing a Chief Plant Health Officer (now Professor Nicola Spence) and generating a plant risk register have already been undertaken. A finalised Plant Biosecurity Strategy is expected from Defra later this spring.

But whilst work is progressing, the select committee voice several concerns within their report. One of the biggest factors that affects not only the near future but also the long term mitigation of plant health issues is that of skills and expertise gaps relating to tree and plant health. In 2012, the British Society for Plant Pathology undertook an audit regarding the education and training of plant pathology in the UK. The report found that throughout the UK the number of Higher Education Institutes teaching or providing training on plant pathology has declined, with fewer students signing up for modules covering plant pathology or plant science topics. These problems can stem from the fact that many plant pathology lecturers are retiring and not being replaced, a general misconception that plant pathology/science is boring and that often plant science or pathology modules are not compulsory or present in first year and thus reduce the uptake of such subjects in future study.

These declining numbers have also been reported in wider plant science subjects, meaning that the number of people with expertise and skills relating to plant health issues are small and could thus reduce the UK’s capacity to identify and mitigate against plant health threats in the future. As such, the committee encourages Defra to lay out the initiatives that are being undertaken to address the expertise gap and develop clear timeframes and details of funding about such initiatives. The committee also suggests that increasing the number of places available on university courses and providing more funding to incentivise these places being filled could help to encourage more students to develop a passion for plant health science.

Another concern relating to the capacity and capability of the UK to manage the impacts and threats of plant and tree health is that of funding. Over the past 20 years, UK funding for research into tree health issues has become increasingly difficult to obtain and Defra has also faced many budget cuts. Additionally, limited resources have and will further affect monitoring and research, particularly over the long term. However, whilst Defra funding in forest research has declined over the past five years, funding for plant health has actually increased. Despite this, the committee argues that in order to ensure that long term research, which is so essential for our understanding and mitigation of threats to plant health, can continue sustainably, ring fenced funding must be provided. They argue this is essential for future mitigation of plant health issues and lay out that this research should cover areas such as development of control measures, understanding of resistance and studying other risk areas such as untreated wood and soil.

There are several other key recommendations that the report lays out:

  • Ensuring the role of Chief Plant Health Officer is clearly defined and supported in order to allow sufficient co-ordination and collaboration between organisations to take place for effective evidence generation and responses to outbreaks.
  • Defra should provide regular updates on progress to the new EU plant health regime.
  • Encouraging the government to consider biodiversity and ecosystem services when developing approaches for safeguarding plant health such as building resilience in wider landscapes through effective conservation and restoration of habitats.

The government’s commitment to addressing plant health has steadily increased over the past few years and should continue to do so into the future given the recognition of these issues and the current EU changes in legislation. Reports such as this are important tools for the government to use to help steer direction and try to implement best practice to ensure plant health issues are effectively tackled. The committee’s recognition of the importance of funding for long term research and the need to increase the number of plant scientists is not only good news for addressing plant health problems, but also fostering subjects within ecology. It will remain to be seen whether the government takes up the committee’s advice.