According to Edwards...Why plant health is being taken more seriously

Ash dieback, or more accurately the British public's reaction to it, marked a change in the way we consider plant health.

Maybe that’s the inevitable consequence of a serious plant health issue. The subject, rightly, carries more weight now than it did. Perhaps that same process is now happening in southern Europe with the arrival of Xylella fastidiosa.

Xylella is a bacterial disease known to wine producers, olive farmers and citrus growers — all important commercial crops in the south — so it’s no wonder they worried when it was discovered in southern Italy. But surely nothing for northern European growers to stress over?

The disease might not threaten our crops, but that’s not the point. The bacterium thrives on an extensive range of host plants and movement of any of those plants from a contaminated area could spread it further afield. EU plant health people have carried out a risk assessment and decided on the action to be taken when Xylella is found, and this is where our problems really start.

The rules state that all potential host plants within a 10km radius should be quarantined for five years. If that doesn’t sound worrying, try looking at it from a Dutch perspective. Some growers in Boskoop are concerned that an infected oak on the list of host plants could be innocently imported from Italy to Holland and there identified. Were that to happen, the regulations demand that Boskoop, in practice, be closed down for five years.

This situation understandably strains the relationship between Italy’s exporters and their customers. No surprise then that Italian plant health authorities are suddenly doing everything they can to assure the rest of Europe that they vigorously follow the rules.

Plant health is pushing itself up the grower agenda. We all have responsibilities under current regulations and those responsibilities will only increase over time. All players in the supply chain need to be sure that they understand what those responsibilities are.

Tim Edwards is chairman of Boningale Nurseries

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