Government vows to prioritise plant health

Plant Health Task Force report recommends more plant passporting at EU ports and greater use of protected zone status.

Paterson (left) with show garden designer Thompson at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show - photo: HW
Paterson (left) with show garden designer Thompson at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show - photo: HW

The horticulture industry is set to have greater restrictions on plant imports after the Government's Plant Health Task Force and Defra secretary of state Owen Paterson indicated that they will make plant health a priority after a string of crises including ash dieback hit the UK.

The task force's report, published this week, recommends more plant passporting at every EU port of call - and the last one before reaching the EU - as well as greater use of protected zone status (see box for full list of recommendations).

Professor Chris Gilligan's tree health and plant biosecurity expert task force, which was established by Paterson in 2012, stated:

  • "Businesses that import or cultivate imported trees and other plants should take significantly more responsibility for biosecurity - for example, by assuring the provenance of both the plants and associated soils from their suppliers."
  • "To minimise the risks of pest and pathogen incursions, control measures should be tightened through more proactive use of existing legislative mechanisms by both the UK and by other EU member states - for example, by seeking protected zone status before rather than after a pest or pathogen arrives in the UK."

The report says there has been a 71 per cent increase in plant imports since 1999.

Paterson said a British child finding an Asian longhorn beetle is an example of how he wants everyone to help prevent plant pests and diseases reaching the UK.

He added that the industry is behind his first move - to ban sweet chestnut imports.

"This is the first time a Government has ever put plant disease on the same level as animal disease."

But he said the EU under-appreciates Britain's potential role as a disease-free island and added that EU restrictions and a lack of trained horticulturists are slowing Defra's ability to respond to plant health crises.

Speaking from the Jo Thompson-designed RHS Chelsea Flower Show Food & Environment Research Agency "Stop the Spread" garden, which warns about plant health and disease threats, Paterson told HW: "We are bound by the rules of the Common Market but there are also arrangements such as these bans we can do to protect our country from diseases, so with the constraints we've got we can do an awful lot more and that's what Gilligan's report clearly shows.

"We could be doing an awful lot more if we make it a priority and this Government under me has made this an absolute priority."

Paterson cited his failed attempt to stop the EU banning neonicotinoids as a "EU constraint that could be very damaging to our environment. If we had the direct decision here, we would make a different decision."

He added: "In areas we are rigorous (with plant inspections) but we need to make it much more universal. I have talked to (EU) commissioner Borg about this.

"There are advantages for the EU in having an island of healthy plant life and some of the member states were bitterly disappointed when we got Chalara because they hoped they could restock from us, so we do have a real role to play, possibly as a reservoir."

Gilligan said costs would be "negligible" compared with the cost of fighting diseases such as ash dieback. He added: "By increasing our understanding of what pests and diseases are the biggest threats and how best to mitigate their impact, we can minimise potentially devastating outbreaks."

He called for better "interaction" and less "separation of responsibilities" between Defra and the Forestry Commission.

HTA business development director Tim Briercliffe said the report is a positive development but the pest risk register "will only work if regularly reviewed with the trade. The problem before was the Forestry Commission knew about ash dieback and other diseases but hadn't told anyone."

Majestic Trees managing director Steve McCurdy said all importers must have a plant passport that they could lose if they import infected plants. He called for importers and exporters to be rated, with the lower rated getting more inspections.

HTA consultant David Brown said: "There's a balance between facilitating trade and stopping disease."

European Nurserystock Association UK member Tim Edwards said: "If we adopt draconian legislation overnight with no plants coming from Europe we don't have enough plant production here.

"There is little specimen tree production here as well as a load of other plant types."

He added that the industry may move towards a system where nurseries advocate an enhanced scheme where customers pay more for plants that are labelled as clean.

National Trust plant health adviser Ian Wright said gardeners should help to protect UK plant health generally by "finding out where plants come from and supporting those suppliers able to grow in this country".

Plant health policy - task force publishes its recommendations

  • Develop a prioritised UK Plant Health Risk Register. - Appoint a chief plant health officer to own the UK Plant Health Risk
  • Register and to provide strategic and tactical leadership for managing those risks.
  • Develop and implement procedures for preparedness and contingency planning to predict, monitor, and control the spread of pests and pathogens.
  • Review, simplify and strengthen governance and legislation.
  • Improve the use of epidemiological intelligence from EU/other regions and work to improve the EU regulations concerned with tree health and plant biosecurity.
  • Strengthen biosecurity to reduce risks at the border and within the UK.
  • Develop a modern, user-friendly system to provide quick and intelligent access to information about tree health and plant biosecurity.
  • Address key skills shortages.

See tree-health-and-plant-biosecurity-expert-taskforce-final-report.

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