Monday, 5 November 2012

Is ash dieback the wakeup call we need for biosecurity?

Trees are suddenly high on the public agenda.  We take them and their contribution to our landscapes and ecology very much for granted, until they are under threat.  For anyone old enough to remember the ravages of Dutch elm disease in the 1970s, the current debate about ash dieback has particular resonances.  But why have we been taken so much by surprise?  Ash dieback is one of many diseases that are currently affecting our native woodland and moorlands.  Policymakers and stakeholder organisations have known for several years that these problems are increasing.  The first interdisciplinary research into plant disease was carried out by researchers working within the Relu programme and “Growing Concerns: animal and plant disease policy for the 21st century” was published just over a year ago.  Several themes emerged very strongly in this policy briefing paper: animal and plant diseases are also spread by people, so we need to understand human behaviour as well as the science of pathogens; public awareness of these problems is low and consequently there is little willingness to pay for biosecurity measures; environmental change is likely to exacerbate the problems; international trade poses particular challenges.  It is also very unclear where responsibility for either implementing precautionary measures or meeting potential financial losses should lie, particularly when the horticulture industry is very disparate and involves many small companies.  Global supply chains are often long and complex, with many stakeholders involved, so it can be difficult to pinpoint failings.  But the paper does make the point that we have sources from which policymakers can learn, including experience gained in dealing with animal disease.  Researchers have urged a more rounded response, including a thorough analysis of socio-economic drivers and how it affects human behaviour, alongside technical assessments of diseases.  We know that stakeholders’ responses may, sometimes unwittingly, exacerbate risk or limit the effectiveness of precautionary measures.  Flexibility is also called for, as threats change all the time.  It may be, as some commentators suggest, that we are already too late to save our ash trees.  A more optimistic response would be that at last we do have the level of public awareness we need in order to have an effective debate about the wider questions of plant biosecurity. Perhaps we need to seize that opportunity now and decide where our priorities lie: free global trade, protection of our native flora, or crop and food security.  We also need to decide who should take on responsibility for biosecurity and its failures.

Memory and Prediction in Tree  Disease Control PPN 25

Plant Disease Risk, Management and Policy Formulation PPN 31

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