April to see the launch of new Defra research centre

Defra is to launch a new national research centre for food and the environment on 1 April.

The NFU and HTA have broadly welcomed the merger of the Central Science Laboratory (CSL), Plant Health Division, Plant Health & Seeds Inspectorate and the Plant Variety Rights Office and Seeds Division to create one agency, the Food & Environment Research Agency (Fera). But reservations about the organisation's scope and approach remain.

HTA director general David Gwyther said: "We welcome the new Food & Environment Research Agency in principle and recognise that the new structure is a cost-reduction exercise - presumably now funds are available for ornamental and edible plant health.

"Trees and plants are as important to the environment as edibles to the food chain. I hope (farming minister) Jane Kennedy will take that on board. We hope the new body will have more effectiveness than previous organisations on the impact of pesticides withdrawal, a sensible approach to peat reduction targets, overexuberant bans on common garden plants deemed as invasive without scientific evidence and ensuring plant imports are inspected at the point of entry rather than being blamed on the UK nursery trade."

The NFU said it hopes the new body will ensure all areas of Defra's policy are firmly based on science and evidence.

Grower John Middleton said diseases such as sudden oak death were being managed by the Forestry Commission and Forest Re-search, which are not part of the new organisation. He added that devolved Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were also not included in Fera's work. "This is just moving the deckchairs around. Policy is decided in Brussels anyway."

He added: "The Government does not want responsibility for this. The agency is autonomous. It's a cost-raising agency that will raise money from victims such as myself. Is this a move towards privatising the plant health protection regime in the UK?"

A Defra representative said: "Fera will continue to represent the whole of the UK for some responsibilities, such as international representation in plant or seed issues.

"The creation of Fera does not change which services are charged for and which are not. However, charging is constantly under review; the agency will follow government policy on what should be charged for and what level these charges should be."

The agency's main science laboratories will be located at Sand Hutton near York (currently CSL), with seed offices in Cambridge, a wildlife study centre in Gloucestershire and around 40 other small shared office facilities for its plant health inspectorate around the UK.

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