Urgent action needed over plant disease skills shortage - MPs

Sophie Janacek of TGAC works on DNA samples of the Chalara Ash Dieback Disease at the John Innes Cen

Sophie Janacek of TGAC works on DNA samples of the Chalara Ash Dieback Disease at the John Innes Centre, Norwich. Photograph Simon Parker - Credit: Archant

Urgent action is needed to address a lack of people with the skills to spot and deal with outbreaks of plant diseases such as the deadly Chalara ash tree disease, MPs have warned.

The Commons Environment committee – which held an inquiry after the UK's first wild case of ash dieback was discovered in Ashwellthorpe, near Wymondham in 2012 – has said there are too few plant academics and courses to train them in UK universities and colleges.

Last year scientists at the Norwich Research Park won funding to lead the battle against the deadly Chalara ash tree disease with a £1.5m grant to put its laboratories on the front line of the fightback.

The money will pay for a two-year research project which will be led from the Norwich Research Park (NRP), with the Sainsbury Laboratory (TSL) and the John Innes Centre (JIC) spearheading a partnership of 10 research institutes from across the UK and Europe.

Scientists collaborating on ash dieback research have now revealed the first genetic clues that could help them identify and breed trees tolerant to the disease.

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Allan Downie, who leads the consortium of research at the Norwich Research Park, said: 'Importing living trees from Europe or elsewhere in the world is inevitably going to increase the spread of pests and pathogens into the UK.'

Adding that there was already a shortage of people with the appropriate skills to recognise and deal with these problems.

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Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee chairman Anne McIntosh said: 'The UK needs its own solid core of dedicated, well-trained experts in this area and the Government must act with urgency to address the skills gap that we currently face.'

The committee backed the Tree Health and Plant Biosecurity Expert Taskforce, urging the government to deliver every recommendation fully.

Miss McIntosh said: 'The government's efforts so far to combat plant disease are to be welcomed, but we must strengthen our own capability to predict, monitor, control and mitigate the impact of pests and diseases on plants here in the UK.'

She added: 'Co-ordination and communication between the multiple plant health organisations, both within the UK and across the EU, is key.

'We must take advantage of lessons learned on the continent and take early action at home to combat the risks posed by diseases and pests.'

MPs also call for ring-fenced funding to underpin long-term research and development work that focuses on preparation for future plant health threats, adding: 'Disease risks to plants in the UK are rising significantly but funding for research in this area has not kept pace.

'One of Defra's new priorities is to safeguard plant health: long term funding must reflect this accordingly.'

Do you have a story about plant disease or a research project? Contact newsdesk@archant.co.uk

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