House of Commons committee hears industry's plant health concerns post chalara

The HTA has given oral evidence to the Select Committee for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) to inform their inquiry into Tree Health and Plant Biosecurity.

Jamie Dewhurst of J & A Growers represented the HTA, alongside representatives from forestry body Confor, as the Select Committee sought to examine further its understanding of tree and plant health following last year’s outbreak of Chalara, and to explore whether Defra’s response had been proportionate and effective.

Dewhurst said: "The EFRA Select Committee asked some searching questions about the background to the Chalara outbreak and the government’s response.  But the meeting also provided a useful opportunity to talk more broadly about the threats from future pest and diseases.

"Other areas of focus included the recommendations from the Expert Task Force, the need to provide more market stability to increase domestic production and the dearth of R&D money allocated to protect the UK from future plant health risks."

HTA policy manager Gary Scroby said: "Jamie’s evidence usefully supplemented the written evidence that the HTA had already supplied to the inquiry. Of particular interest to the Committee was the market volatility caused by the forestry grant schemes, and in particular the gap year that is looming in 2014 because of a lack of RDPE funds.

"Many UK nurseries will struggle to survive such a gap year after absorbing the economic losses from a redundant ash crop.  It is vital that Defra provides some kind of transitional scheme for the forestry sector in 2014-15, and also fulfils the commitment in the Chalara Management Plan to mitigate the economic damage to those nurseries supplying the amenity sector."

In written evidence, the HTA supported the Government's plant task force's plans to develop a prioritised UK Plant Health Risk Register; to 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; to develop and implement procedures for preparedness and contingency planning to predict, monitor and control the spread of pests and pathogens; and to review, simplify, and strengthen governance and legislation.

Internationally, the HTA agreed that improvement of the use of epidemiological intelligence from EU/other regions and work to improve the EU regulations concerned with tree health and plant biosecurity is important.

It also agreed with the recommendation that the UK strengthens biosecurity to reduce risks at the border and within the UK and that Defra and its agences develop a modern, user-friendly system to provide quick and intelligent access to information about tree health and plant biosecurity.

The HTA said addressing key skills shortages was essential.

It made four recommendations:

a) The forestry grant system should be improved to provide for longer-term planning, funding and procurement cycles, preferably over a forecast 5-7 year period. This would enable landowners and nurseries to contract grow, thereby increasing UK production and decreasing imports and the associated plant health risks. This would be perfectly in line with the Government’s policy to protect, improve and expand the UK’s forestry and woodlands;

b) Defra needs to urgently address the void of RDPE grant schemes for the "gap year" in 2014/15, and to plan for future transitional arrangements at the end of future RDPE windows. This can be done, as has been proven in Scotland;

c) Government should establish and enforce procurement standards to become exemplar clients in terms of contract grown amenity projects, i.e. learn from the Olympics example and recreate quality landscape schemes for future public-funded projects, e.g. HS2 ;

d) It is crucial that the importance of biosecurity is communicated just as firmly to all those involved in the amenity sector as it is to the forestry sector. This includes local authorities, landscape architects, contractors etc, who represent an entirely separate supply chain risk for the introduction of new pests and diseases. Often planting for these contracts is left until the last minute and spot procurement practise is to source the cheapest product, irrespective of quality and provenance.  

Scottish Forestry Trust, the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, the BSW Timber Group, Scottish Natural Heritage, Woodland Trust, NFU, RSPB, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, National Trust, Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and several individuals also made submissions.

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