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England and Wales have a good record in containing and eradicating major outbreaks of plant pests and diseases, according to a report today by the National Audit Office. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has a key role to play in maintaining this good record but there are several ways in which it could improve its work.

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The principal effects of plant pests and diseases are economic: they can damage the appearance, growth, yield and ultimately the value of farmers’ and growers’ produce. Farmers’ and growers’ livelihoods can be put at stake as their incomes suffer from lower yields or depressed prices on account of poorer quality produce. The financial impacts of plant pests and diseases on this country could be extremely large. For example, in 2001 it was estimated that £279 million of potato crops in southern England might be at risk from Colorado Beetle and £133 million of crops such as tomatoes, cucumbers and ornamental plants were at risk from Tobacco Whitefly. There is also a risk to the environment, where pests and diseases can impact on wild flora.

Stakeholders consulted by the NAO and respondents to DEFRA’s customer satisfaction surveys have confidence in the effectiveness of the Department’s measures to control and eradicate pests, facilitate exports of plants and maintain quality standards. And farmers, growers, international organisations and trading partners have a high regard for the Department’s work in this area and its inspectors.

In recent years, only three economically significant pests and diseases have become established in this country, and no exports were rejected by importing countries because of the presence of a pest or disease. However, according to today’s report, it is difficult to demonstrate the extent to which the country’s plant health record is attributable to the Department’s activities, given the part played by other factors such as pesticides, the weather and the tough conditions that major supermarket chains place on the produce they will accept from producers.

The number of recorded outbreaks of pests and diseases has been rising, from an average of 150 a year over the period 1993 to 2000 to more than 200 in 2001 and some 370 in 2002. Increased and changing patterns of trade and travel, changes in farming practices and climate change provide potential opportunities for plant pests and diseases to enter and become established in England and Wales. The risks are underlined by the threat currently posed by a condition known as Sudden Oak Death, which is causing the death of some species of oak trees in California and Oregon in the United States and has prompted European Union-wide emergency legislation to contain and eradicate the disease. The fungus has been found at over 280 sites on rhododendron and viburnum in England and Wales, although none has been found on oaks or other established trees.

The Department carries out a range of inspections to detect the presence of plant pests and diseases on consignments entering or leaving this country. In the last two years, however, only a little over two per cent of inspections detected pests or diseases. The paucity of detections could be attributable to poorly targeted inspections and/or poor quality inspections or to the absence of pests and diseases within the general population of plants, planting material, plant produce and premises being inspected. The NAO report makes a number of recommendations on how the Department can improve its inspection work, including improving the information available to inspectors for better targeting their inspections and considering whether the level of inspection activity is disproportionate to the attendant risks. In view of low detection rates, there is scope for the Department to consider placing more emphasis on reducing risks at their source by working with countries whose exports are key sources of imported pests and diseases into England and Wales. The Department also needs to speed up its inspection response to high risk imports, to detect any pests or diseases before they spread; in the last two years, it has not met its target for inspecting all imports of plants, plant cuttings and tissue cultures from non-European Union countries within two weeks of entry into this country.

The NAO also recommends that the Department better co-ordinate its plant health work, particularly its research, both internally and with other key stakeholders in this country and abroad, take the lead in ensuring there will be an adequate supply of young scientists to replace plant health specialists as they retire, and improve the means for transferring knowledge and technologies to the industry so that public money invested in plant health research and development is put to maximum effect. The Department should also examine with the industry and insurers the scope for introducing insurance programmes to help protect farmers and growers against losses caused by plant pests and diseases.

"The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has a key role to play in maintaining the high international reputation for plant health possessed by England and Wales. But increasing trade and travel, new farming practices and climate change increase the risk of new plant pests and diseases being introduced and spreading here. The Department 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."

The head of the National Audit Office, Sir John Bourn


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