Shortage of Plant Disease Experts Threatens Tree and Crop Health

01 Nov 2012

News image

Job cuts are threatening Britain's ability to combat new diseases of trees and crops, says a report published today.

An Audit of Plant Pathology Training and Education in the UK, published by the British Society for Plant Pathology, reports a serious decline in teaching and research on plant diseases in British universities and colleges.

Plant pathology has been lost completely or greatly reduced at 11 universities and colleges while fewer than half the institutions which teach biology, agriculture or forestry offer courses in plant pathology.

'These job losses are severe. Britain is not producing graduates with the expertise needed to identify and control plant diseases in our farms and woodlands,' said Professor James Brown, President of the British Society of Plant Pathology.

'One of the most worrying finding is the decline in practical training in plant pathology', Professor Brown said. 'Only one in seven universities now provide practical classes which give students hands-on experience of plant disease'.

'The appearance of ash dieback in British woodlands should be a wake-up call to the government and industry,' he added. 'New diseases threaten our woodlands and our food crops. Plant pathology education in Britain needs to be revived, to reverse the decline in expertise and to give farmers and foresters better ways of controlling these diseases.'

The plant pathology audit finds that British universities have appointed very few plant pathologists in the last 20 years. Many of those who remain are aged over 50. The report attributes the loss of expertise to a shift towards subjects which bring more short-term income into universities.

The report says the position has worsened recently. There has been a long-term decline in plant pathology in many universities but there are now concerns about the long-term viability of the subject in Britain because of the loss of large numbers of plant pathology lecturers at Warwick University and Imperial College, London.

Professor Murray Grant, a plant pathologist at Exeter University, said 'This audit shows the situation is much worse than we imagined. Our world-class research base in plant pathology is threatened. Plant pathology expertise is needed to counter current and emerging threats to the British landscape. We just need to look at the devastating impact of tree diseases such as ash dieback, sudden oak death and horse chestnut canker to appreciate the seriousness of the situation.'

Professor Michael Shaw of Reading University said, 'As globalisation and changes in the climate alter the range of diseases attacking our food crops and our countryside, we must educate specialists who can react to the unexpected. And we must not wait till we have lost existing expertise completely; it takes experience and time to become competent.'

'All areas of plant pathology in Britain are under strain', said Professor Brown. 'We are especially worried that there are now very few UK experts left in diseases of trees and vegetables.'


Notes for editors

1. Plant pathology is the science of plant diseases and the parasites which cause them, including fungi, bacteria, viruses and nematode worms.

2. The British Society for Plant Pathology is a scientific society which exists to promote the science of plant pathology. It is a not-for-profit, charitable organisation which organises scientific conferences on plant disease and publishes three scientific journals, Plant Pathology, Molecular Plant Pathology and New Disease Reports.

3. The 'Audit of Plant Pathology Training and Education in the UK' is published by BSPP today. It reports on teaching in plant pathology in Higher Education Institutes (HEI; universities and colleges) in the UK. Some key findings are:

  • Plant pathology is no longer taught at 5 HEI and staffing levels have been reduced significantly at a further six HEI
  • Fewer than half of the 103 HEI offering biology, agriculture, horticulture or forestry at BSc level provide teaching in plant pathology and this can be as little as one or two lectures
  • Only 1 in 4 of these 103 HEI (only about 1 in 7 of all HEI in the UK) teach plant pathology practical classes, so critical hands-on training and expertise is at risk
  • The age profile of plant pathologists in higher education is of major concern and it is not known how many HEI will retain the capacity to teach plant pathology in 5-10 years time.

4. Chalara ash dieback is a highly aggressive disease.  It has been spreading rapidly across Europe and has been especially destructive in Denmark, where up to 90% of ash trees may be diseased.  It appeared in the British Isles in 2012 and was discovered in natural woodland in sites across England and Ireland in October 2012. The disease is caused by a fungus, Hymenoscyphus pseudoalbidus, also known as Chalara fraxinea.

5. BSPP estimates that there are now fewer than 10 qualified plant pathology experts active in research on tree diseases in the UK and that there is only one research programme on tree pathology in a British university.


Contacts

Professor James Brown, President of the British Society for Plant Pathology Phone 07957 605640 or 01603 450615 Email james.brown@jic.ac.uk Professor Brown is a plant pathologist at the John Innes Centre, Norwich and an honorary professor of Biological Sciences at the University of East Anglia.  He is recognised internationally for his research on disease resistance in arable crops.

Professor Murray Grant, a member of the Board of the British Society for Plant Pathology Phone 01392 269166 or 07984 791827 Email m.r.grant@exeter.ac.uk Professor Grant is Professor of Plant Molecular Biology at Exeter University, which has an internationally renowned research programme on plant pathology.  He is well-known for his research on mechanisms by which plants defend themselves against disease.

Professor Michael Shaw, President-elect of the British Society for Plant Pathology Phone 0118 3788093 or 07879 470906 Email m.w.shaw@reading.ac.uk Professor Shaw is a plant disease ecologist at the University of Reading.  He is recognised internationally for his research on how diseases develop and spread in a wide range of plant populations.