Shortage of plant disease experts threatens plant health

A decline in teaching and research on plant diseases in British universities and colleges is threatening the country’s ability to deal with new diseases, a report has said.

An ‘Audit of Plant Pathology Education and Training in the UK’, published by the British Society for Plant Pathology found that plant pathology has been lost completely or greatly reduced at 11 universities and colleges.

Fewer than half the institutions which teach biology, agriculture or forestry offer courses in plant pathology.

British Society of Plant Pathology President Professor James Brown said: "These job losses are severe. Britain is not producing graduates with the expertise needed to identify and control plant diseases in our farms and woodlands.

"One of the most worrying finding is the decline in practical training in plant pathology. Only one in seven universities now provide practical classes which give students hands-on experience of plant disease."

"The appearance of ash dieback in British woodlands should be a wake-up call to the government and industry. New diseases threaten our woodlands and our food crops.  Plant pathology education in Britain needs to be revived, to reverse the decline in expertise and to give farmers and foresters better ways of controlling these diseases."

The audit has found that British universities have appointed very few plant pathologists in the last 20 years, with many of those remaining over 50. It attributes the loss of expertise to a shift towards subjects which bring more short-term income into universities.

It says the position has worsened recently and there are concerns about the long-term viability of the subject in Britain because of the loss of large numbers of plant pathology lecturers at Warwick University and Imperial College, London.

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