Sector debates plant biosecurity issue

Now is the time to make sure a Chalara episode never happens again, say delegates at UK Plant Biosecurity Conference.

Delegates to a plant health conference called in the wake of the Chalara fraxinea crisis have said Defra communication should be improved to help the industry guard against importing pests.

Speaking at the HTA UK Plant Biosecurity Conference (30 May), business development director Tim Briercliffe said the industry is still "bruised by its treatment over Chalara". The HTA will seek compensation through a submission to a Defra select committee later this month.

He added that this is one of the few areas where the industry wants more regulation but it is sceptical about European plant health changes because it does not believe EU borders are tight against pests and diseases.

Majestic Trees managing director Steve McCurdy proposed a risk-based plant-health system. Briercliffe said: "Britain needs to be able to act in its own interest."

Defra chief plant health officer Martin Ward said Defra banned ash imports late in 2012 without waiting for EC permission. Briercliffe said Britain should do that more often but quicker in future and not "when the press gets angry".

At the event, the Woodland Trust, J&A Growers and UPM Tilhill called for more contract growing, particularly for Government contracts, which Briercliffe said ministers could act on now.

For the amenity industry, Briercliffe said there is a "lack of awareness" of the issue among landscape architects and commercial landscapers, evidenced by few of them being at the conference and the widespread importing of plants direct from Europe.

Delegates including Provender's Doug Reade worried about "rogue traders" who would undermine "good operators". Briercliffe said: "We never said you shouldn't import plants. But you should do it in the right way."

Boningale managing director Tim Edwards called for tighter border controls, a plant assurance scheme and increased Government backing for UK production, a measure that Briercliffe said would not be necessary if the current plant health system worked properly.

Briercliffe added that there is money to run the current system, which is "not working", and funds could be used for a better system but the industry needs to take control. Bransford Webbs managing director Geoff Caesar said more inspections could stop plants moving through the system fast and could disadvantage the UK industry.

Ward and Defra civil servant Mark Smethurst could give no assurances over funding to implement Plant Health Task Force recommendations such as a plant health risk register, biosecurity strengthening and more staff. Briercliffe said: "If they had money they would have shouted about it. If they are going to raise this as a priority they do need more money."

Ward detailed the review of the EU Plant Health Regime, which he said might not finalise until 2018. He said a pre-emptive "reverse strategy" is needed to assess risk before imports.

Several delegates talked about knowledge transfer and risk registers. Briercliffe said the HTA would pass on information on risk to the trade and called for workshops on grants, assurance schemes and other issues while plant health is near the top of Defra's priorities.

But future threats such as emerald ash borer, as mentioned by keynote speaker Oliver Rackham and Forest Research pathologist Joan Webber, could make Chalara pale into insignificance if they reach the UK.

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