EU means UK borders too open to xylella disease, says grower

A draft document addressing the aftermath of recent tree pest and disease crises ash dieback, Phytophthora ramorum and oak processionary moth is unlikely to help with future problems such as Xylella fastidiosa because UK borders are too open to imports from the EU, according to nurseryman John Middleton.

Phytophthora ramorum: public perception of threats from invasive pests and pathogens studied in UNPICK project - image: HW
Phytophthora ramorum: public perception of threats from invasive pests and pathogens studied in UNPICK project - image: HW

The UNPICK project - an interdisciplinary collaboration between the Centre for Environmental Policy at Imperial College London, Forest Research and the University of Bath - is investigating how the public perceives and understands the growing threats to tree health from invasive pests and pathogens.

As part of the Tree Health & Plant Biosecurity Initiative, UNPICK will compare public reaction and involvement with three recent tree disease outbreaks in the UK. The project will examine how concern has developed over time and identify the different "hazard sequences" that may have influenced perceptions and understandings of risk in each of the cases.

The research aims to contribute to the policy evidence base by defining the nature of public concern about this important issue, drawing lessons for future risk communication and engagement.

Defra, the Forestry Commission and the Biotechnology & Biological Sciences Research Council are behind the research, which will address knowledge gaps identified by Defra's Tree Health & Plant Biosecurity Expert Task Force and the objectives of the joint Defra/Forestry Commission Tree Health & Plant Biosecurity Action Plan.

The project hopes to learn lessons for dealing with diseases such as Xylella fastidiosa.

But Shelley Common Nursery owner Middleton, who was interviewed for the research, said: "I don't think a lesson will be leant for Xylella.

"The EU has more power than any government and it comes down to the EU because if it is a conflict between greater biosecurity and more integration, European courts will find that trade takes precedence over biosecurity every time. Unless David Cameron wins an opt-out on this, we should come out of Europe and make our own plans."

Rhododendron grower Middleton added: "Don't import plants from Europe because that's the most likely cause (of the pests and diseases). There was £25m spent on Phytophthora ramorum. It was as bad as the foot-and-mouth mess in the way it was handled but there was no enquiry to learn how to better handle it.

"Phytophthora ramorum was first found in Europe in 1993 and was not found in the UK until 2002, so common sense suggests the most likely source of it entering this country is from Europe on plants.

"Oak processionary moth was not a quarantine-able pest when it came in - you couldn't legally prevent it coming in - and nurseries had to pay for the consequences. Plant inspectors are £180 per hour. George Osborne doubled inspection fees. He said we had to pay full cost recovery but what they were doing was in the national interest, and the inspectors couldn't tell whether you have Phytophthora ramorum or not.

"My thoughts are to get out of Europe and put up our own borders for plant health. We could get European growers to grow in the UK if we remain a part of Europe. But there should be a cordon sanitaire around the British Isles. We should grow to the very highest standards of disease control.

"If we don't remain in Europe (after June's referendum) we should put our own barriers up and not import anything that is unnecessary, like in Australia and New Zealand, though we'd have to be slightly more liberal because we have to import vast quantities of food.

"The greatest threat to biosecurity is hardy nursery stock because it's not just plants but the soil they grow in. Plants sold to the US, you have to wash the soil off."

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