UK plants under increasing threat

Audit report blames rise in trade and travel for spread of diseases

Outbreaks of plant pests and diseases have more than doubled in the past decade, a parliamentary watchdog found last week. According to National Audit Office figures, there were 370 cases in 2002, compared with around 200 the previous year and an average of 150 a year between 1993 and 2000. One of the biggest single factors has been the spread of Phytophthora ramorum (HW, 16 October). The report also blamed increased trade and travel for the rise, along with changes in farming practice and climate. It said England and Wales had a “good record in containing and eradicating major outbreaks of plant pests and diseases”. However, only two per cent of plant health inspections detected pests or diseases. The report said “the paucity of detections could be due to poorly targeted inspections and/or poor quality inspections”. The NAO recommended that the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs better co-ordinate its plant health work, particularly its research. It also said DEFRA should ensure that an adequate supply of young scientists replaces plant health specialists as they retire, and improve the means for transferring knowledge and technologies to the industry. The NAO said DEFRA should also look at introducing insurance programmes to help protect farmers and growers against losses caused by plant pests and diseases. NAO head Sir John Bourn said: “Increasing trade and travel, new farming practices and climate change increase the risk of new plant pests and diseases being introduced and spreading here. “DEFRA should now take steps to improve its plant health inspection regime and research and how it works with others, to keep new and emerging threats at bay.”

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