Edwards on ... coping with imported pests

Any insect, given a full tabloid page in close-up Technicolor, would appear photogenic and sinister.

So I'm surprised the national press has not made more of the citrus longhorn beetle. When Phytophthora ramorum first appeared, we were given double-page spreads of ancient oaks below headlines predicting the loss of an icon from the British countryside. A Longhorn beetle from the right angle might even have competed with the election.

Imported pests and diseases are no laughing matter. When a pathogen is taken out of the ecology it evolved in - an ecology evolved to survive alongside it - and introduced to a different part of the globe, the consequences can by devastating. The gap left in our countryside by the loss of more than 25 million elms is testament to that.

Most nurserymen do a fair amount of trading, too. The weakness of the pound has slowed down imports to a degree, but we still bring vast quantities of plants across the water from Europe. Our ecologies are not so different and European pathogens are not likely to cause devastation on too great a scale (Dutch elm disease probably originated in Asia). But it is getting easier to import from further afield. The latest citrus longhorn beetle outbreak in Boskoop, in the western Netherlands, is thought to have come from China on a consignment of maples.

The rest of the world sees Britain as the great gardening nation and our gardening spend per capita is the envy (and target) of every nurseryman in Europe. So why do we produce so little of what we consume and why must we import so much?

To answer these questions we must look at how we structure our industry, its infrastructure and the level of service we provide. Then there is our shopkeeper mentality, compared with the trader mentality of the Dutch.

But the threat to our countryside from imported pests and diseases is one more reason to try to change things. As an industry we should be asking how we will become more self-sufficient in the future.

- Comment at www.HorticultureWeek.co.uk

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