Biosecurity system launched amid climate and invasive pest concerns

A new action plan to protect plants from pests and diseases has been published with the UK’s minister for biosecurity warning climate change has created a range of new risks for the country’s ongoing food supplies.

The plan has been predicted by Defra, in partnership with the Forestry Commission and the Scottish and Welsh Governments.

The Plant Biosecurity Strategy for Great Britain sets out a five-year vision for plant health, consisting of an action plan to secure national biosecurity, protect native species and drive economic growth. It positions the UK as a global leader in plant biosecurity, setting out our vision to create a new biosecurity regime and bio-secure plant supply chain, which will safeguard food security and help mitigate the effects of climate change. It comes following updated figures which show that plants provide an annual value of £15.7 billion to the United Kingdom.

Specific actions include expanding the Animal and Plant Health Agency’s Internet Trading Unit to step up monitoring of online retailers and social media sites for the trade of high-risk plant products, in order to stop potentially devastating pests and diseases from entering the country.

Minister for biosecurity, Lord Benyon said: “This landmark strategy sets out how we will protect Great Britain’s plants, with the government, industry and the public working together to tackle the risks posed by plant pests and diseases. In light of climate change, tackling these varied and mounting risks will be critical to maintaining our food security, as well as facilitating safe trade amidst a challenging economic backdrop.

“Today’s announcement demonstrates this Government’s ironclad commitment to protecting and restoring our natural environment for future generations, as we deliver on our tree planting targets and ambition to achieve net zero.”

The announcement comes ahead of the publication of the GB Invasive Non-Native Species (INNS) Strategy in early 2023. This will set out coordinated actions across society to prevent the arrival of new INNS and tackle the impacts of those established, enhancing biosecurity and minimising their environmental and economic impacts.

Leading scientists have welcomed the plan.

Professor Nick Talbot, executive director of The Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich, said: “We welcome the recommendations outlined in the new biosecurity strategy. To protect Great Britain’s food security we need effective policies in place to not only reduce the spread of plant pests and disease, but also to ensure that our crops are prepared for emerging threats.

“We are particularly excited to see the focus on research and technology in Outcome 4 of the strategy which endeavours to build our plant health capability so that GB can keep pace with changing threats and be prepared for the future. There have been incredible advances in genomics in the last few decades which have revolutionized our understanding of plant health. We encourage the government to embrace these advances through genomic surveillance of plant pathogens and by using genetic technologies to develop more resilient and sustainable, disease resistant crops that don’t rely on agrochemicals.”

Dr Alexey Mikaberidze, lecturer in Crop Protection, School of Agriculture, Policy and Development,  at the University of Reading, said the plans was welcomed but there was still a great deal more that needed to be understood around the risks.

“Plants are a key component of the Earth’s ecosystem,” he explained. “They provide us with oxygen, food, energy, medicine and building materials, they make our cities liveable by creating shade and opportunities for recreation, they have cultural and spiritual significance. According to the recent Global Plant Health Assessment conducted by about 100 scientists across the world, plant health is not in a good state worldwide and the UK is not an exception. Plant health in the UK is threatened by a range of pests and diseases, and tackling newly emerging threats is especially challenging. It is great to see that Defra’s new biosecurity strategy emphasises the importance of plant health and outlines concrete steps to reduce the rate of introduction of new pests and diseases into the UK, to manage their spread and to raise public awareness about plant health.

“Yet, to cause a damaging outbreak, a newly introduced pest or pathogen needs proliferate sufficiently to establish itself in a new location. This requires favourable environmental conditions or genetic adaptation. However, our understanding of processes responsible for pest/disease establishment remains rudimentary. Existing risk and horizon scanning approach underlying the UK Plant Health Risk Register, based on scientific literature and simple probabilistic calculations informed by expert opinions is extremely useful, and Defra’s commitment to boost these efforts in the new strategy is reassuring. But a more quantitative, systems level understanding of the processes that drive pest/disease establishment is needed to tackle emerging threats to plant health in a more effective and cost-efficient manner.”

Professor Sarah Gurr, professor of Molecular Plant Pathology, chair in Food Security, University of Exeter, added: “This initiative is very welcome. It comes at a time of heightened public awareness about the perils of pandemic disease, following the global COVID outbreak, and our need to focus now on the plight of plants to pests and pathogens. It also highlights the need to “grow” more plant scientists and for all to realise the need for heightened global food security. It will, however, need realistic funding to become attainable rather than aspirational.”