Plant health must not become a 'Cinderella' issue

We need to prioritise plant health, and not just in a crisis, argues Anthea McIntyre.

Anthea McIntyre | Photo credit: European Parliament audiovisual

By Anthea McIntyre

12 May 2017

Politicians have a tendency to make plant health a Cinderella issue. Too often they pay the subject little attention - until a major disease outbreak sweeps across the continent, dominates the news and shakes them out of their complacency. Then they take action.

But it can often be too late to prevent huge devastation to the landscape, to biodiversity and to many people's livelihoods. For me the issue of plant health needs to be a permanent priority. That is true just as much when disease is in abeyance as when destructive pests are on the rampage and grabbing the headlines.

Staying ahead of damaging plant pests requires eternal vigilance at every level. Growers, gardeners, foresters and farmers all need to be on the lookout in the field for the first signs of disease. The authorities responsible for screening imports and exports need to be efficient, diligent, well-staffed and resourceful.


At the top of the pyramid, government, legislators and policymakers must give the issue the prominence and priority it deserves, permanently and without waiting for the next crisis.

That is why I believe it is most timely for the Parliament Magazine to highlight the topic again now. It is also why I was proud, last October, to steer a comprehensive set of measures to boost plant health through the European Parliament. 

This legislation offers robust and rigorous checks against the spread of disease without over-burdening commercial growers or traders with needless obstacles. It sets out new basic standards to ensure that EU countries work together to address plant pests and diseases. These include mandatory surveillance for high risk pests and better use of the plant passport system.

As far as I am concerned, these standards will become even more important, not less, after the UK leaves the EU. I am a grower myself on a small scale in the UK and I saw with concern how colleagues further south in Europe were hit by the recent spread of the bacterium Xylella fastidiosa, which devastated olive groves. 

My country is not blessed with many olive trees, but we are just as susceptible to any potential weaknesses in our plant health defences. We saw this with the sickening spread of Ash Die-back and the damage it did to our woodlands.

There are many other pests that will cause the same havoc with other plants and products if we let them. The Oak Processionary Moth Thaumetopoea processionea, remains a potential menace in my country to our deciduous trees. Its caterpillars will strip the leaves from oak trees and neighbouring species, laying waste to vast tracts of rare, ancient woodland. 

As its name suggests it will destroy one tree, then the next, then the next. The caterpillars are also a danger to human health if their hairs come into contact with skin or are inhaled. 

The moth's range has been expanding northwards from southern Europe, presumably in response to climate change. It is now firmly established in northern France and the Netherlands, and has been reported in southern Sweden. More recently, colonies of larvae have been found in parts of London.

The UK already has robust controls in place but approaches vary widely from country to country. As a continent we are only as strong as the weakest link.

The latest major outbreak of plant disease in Europe has been devastating for olives and olive-growers – but the next could hit pears or plumbs, parsnips or potatoes. I noted at the time the legislation was approved that pests and diseases do not respect national borders. 

That is why it is so important to have EU-wide rules to protect our agriculture, horticulture and forestry through a proportionate and risk-based approach that provides for quicker decision-making, faster action and better cooperation between member states. I said it was in the UK's interest that the EU should have effective systems in place, both before and after we leave.

This is just as true today. As part of our groundwork for the legislation, we visited plant health institutions and learnt about a range of operations across Europe. The evidence we received suggested a wide fluctuation in the effectiveness and efficiency of various agents. That has to be worrying when you accept the weakest-link principle. And that is why legislation was needed. 

I was hugely impressed when we visited the UK Animal and Plant Health Agency's screening sheds at Heathrow airport, and not only by the thoroughness of their routine inspection regime. The agents there also conducted intelligence-led searches and used their common sense and nous to hone in on potentially risky consignments.

This typifies the high standards that apply in the UK - and those standards will continue to apply after Brexit. So it is hugely important that the rest of the EU should keep up their own controls. After all, 22 miles of the Channel is not far by sea, air or rail. Britain will continue to be a good neighbour to mainland Europe over plant health - and we will be relying on the EU to reciprocate, for the sake of all our continent's plant life, our biodiversity, our growers and our mutual prosperity.


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