Questions remain over sell-off

As Defra's announcement concerning the appointment of a "joint-venture partner" for the Food & Environment Research Agency (FERA) draws closer, the questions concerning the impact of the proposed sell-off of yet another chunk of public science only get bigger.

Uppermost in the minds of horticulture industry figures are the potential obstacles that the introduction of commercial interests will pose to the implementation of an effective response to a major, sustained plant health threat along the lines of ash dieback.

As leading plant health expert John Adlam warns: "The risk is a non-indigenous pest or disease comes in and commercial forces are at play in handling it. Rather than cost being a minor issue, it could become a major one."

All Defra has said on the matter in the run-up to the joint-venture announcement is that it would "retain the necessary level of control to ensure that FERA continues to be able to respond to emergency situations such as a major plant health or food incident". But what happens when that "control" comes into conflict, as it undoubtedly will, with the normal business needs of the new commercial operation? Perhaps the 20 per cent of the operation being retained by Defra, apparently as a fallback option, is meant to reassure us in this regard. But if commercialising the agency is such a good idea, why is a fallback needed at all?

There are more unanswered questions - from the inevitable risk the move poses to our already desperately diminished plant health skills base, to the impact on existing research stations surviving against the odds in a highly competitive funding environment. The biggest though remains what happens when the next Chalara comes to call?

Kate Lowe, Editor -

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