The UK still needs to negotiate sensible plant health inspection agreements following Brexit, MEP Anthea McIntyre has warned after having her report to tackle plant pests approved at a plenary session of the European Parliament in Strasbourg. The report calls for new basic standards to ensure EU countries work together to address plant pests and diseases. These include mandatory surveillance for high-risk pests and better use of the plant passport system (see box).
The Conservative MEP for the West Midlands, who sits on the parliament's agriculture committee, said: "I am delighted the vast majority of MEPs have voted through my report. It offers robust and rigorous checks against the spread of disease without overburdening commercial growers or traders with needless obstacles.
"We need only to look at the devastation caused by diseases such as ash dieback in Britain and Xylella fastidiosa, which affected 30,000ha of Italian olive groves, to understand why more effective measures are necessary."
The report is now law and has to be transposed within 36 months. All countries have to complete a proper survey list of quarantined pests to see whether they exist in their countries. McIntyre said "some countries are better than others" at inspecting, while the law will bring in increased surveillance and stricter eradication measures.
"The bottom line is to prevent things like ash dieback and other horrors coming in," she added. "Although leaving the EU, we will benefit by having the rest of the EU governed by sensible laws to protect our biosecurity. The Dutch said it was overkill. But southern Mediterranean countries said it was not going far enough and want to see every dahlia with its own passport. We went for balance in the middle."
McIntyre explained that individual countries can decide inspection priorities to suit their own economically important plants. But she added: "Post-Brexit the bottom line is we would have to inspect everything. At the moment we have to inspect things from outside the EU so that probably gives us more things potentially to inspect. It depends on agreement with EU countries. It would be a mistake (to inspect everything), particularly when the whole of Europe is operating this regime. It enables us to trust other countries."
European Nurserystock Association chairman Tim Edwards pointed out that at a recent meeting senior EU plant health figures said southern European olive producers have implemented a law to stop felling of iconic olives, making it illegal to do what the EU directive had told them to do.
McIntyre said: "With olives and Xylella, had they acted more quickly it would have been much less damaging. One has great sympathy for the farmers but if they had taken action there would have been less devastation. The idea is the EC says to member states 'you have to do this'. It also offers them compensation. But in the end it boils down to if the member state refuses to act in accordance with regulations laid down, the EC would take them to court."
Italy has tried to water down the list of Xylella risk plants. Following the recent European Food Safety Authority pilot project on Xylella fastidiosa to reduce risk assessment uncertainties, the Italian authorities requested delisting of Vitis, citrus and Quercus ilex from Annex I of Commission Implementing Decision (EU) 789/20154 as considered to be not suitable hosts for the colonisation and multiplication of X. fastidiosa subsp. pauca, strain CoDiRO, present in the Apulia region.
For Quercus ilex there was "some evidence suggesting that it may not be a systemic host of the CoDiRO strain, but that it would be premature to consider this tentative conclusion as firmly established". In the case of Vitis spp., the panel considered that convergent lines of evidence "provide sufficient demonstration that at least the tested varieties (Cabernet Sauvignon, Negroamaro and Primitivo) do not support a systemic infection by the CoDiRO strain". For Citrus spp., the data available "provide coherent and converging lines of evidence suggesting that sweet orange may be a non-systemic host of strain CoDiRO".
McIntyre said: "Decisions need to be made on scientific evidence, not on a hazard-based approach." She added: "I think we can keep Xylella out of the UK. We have been constantly struggling against oak processionary moth or whatever. We have to be very alert and keep our defences up. At Heathrow everything goes through one warehouse so our inspectors can randomly inspect as well as what they have to. In some countries what is not compulsory to inspect goes somewhere else so it is never looked at. Our system is clever."
Nursery consultant John Adlam warned that UK authorities must remain vigilant, whatever legislation comes in. "If and when we get an interception, as opposed to an outbreak, when the disease is found on an imported plant, then that is a problem to us. But if it then breaks out and gets into the environment, that's a disaster for a 10km radius," he said. "We can't afford to ignore the threat and we should be diligent in our ordering process from the outset. We have to take every step possible to stop it coming in."
Basic standards Actions outlined in report by Anthea McIntyre MEP
- Compulsory general surveillance by member states for plant pests and diseases. Surveillance is currently only required when emergency control measures are in place.
- Mandatory surveillance for specified priority pests. The UK Government is likely to press for UK potato pests to be included on the list.
- Harmonisation of the plant passport system. Passports will not be required for plants sold to non-professional users, such as gardeners, unless the transaction takes place over the internet.
- The introduction of preliminary assessments for plants imported from outside the EU that are likely to pose a risk. Should this test suggest an unacceptable pest or disease risk, the product would be provisionally banned from the EU pending a full risk assessment.
- Powers enabling the commission to quickly impose a temporary ban or restrict the movement of plants or products found to pose previously undetected risks.