BSPP News Spring 2000 - Online Edition

The Newsletter of the British Society for Plant Pathology
Number 36, Spring 2000 

Conference and Travel Reports

Plant Health in the New Global Trading Environment
Canberra, Australia : 23 - 24 February 1999
Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service & National Office for Animal and Plant Health and Food Safety
Canberra, Australia : 25 - 26 February 1999

Late in the autumn of 1998 the prospect of travelling for an eternity to give a paper at a workshop in Canberra filled me with mixed feelings - was it worth the long haul, would I gain knowledge in my area of work (Pest Risk Analysis), would the sun still be shining, was my suitcase sturdy enough?  Well, ultimately I'm pleased to say, the answers were all positive.  Before travelling I received mixed advice on how to cope with the impending jet lag, including the benefits of taking melatonin to reset my biological clock.  On the latter point, be warned, it doesn't work for everyone and you can get some strange reactions - just as well I tried it at home first!

Claire and the Big Merino - a large concrete building in the middle
of the NSW Sheep Industry area - you can climb up and look through
its eyes and survey the real sheep from on high!

The visit resulted from an invitation to speak at the "Plant Health in The New Global Trading Environment" workshop in Canberra, organised principally by the Bureau of Rural Sciences, in the session "International Perspectives on Research for Incursion Management".  My paper was entitled "Pest Risk Analysis in the UK and its use to identify research opportunities for exotic plant pathogens".  Additionally the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS) requested that I should meet with them and the National Office of Animal and Plant Health and Food Safety both located in Canberra, to give presentations on the UK Pest Risk Analyses for Tilletia indica (Karnal bunt of wheat) and Urocystis agropyri (flag smut on wheat), the latter with a view to discussing the UK approach to incursion management (management of outbreaks of exotic organisms).  Through discussion I hoped to make new contacts for future collaboration both for those staff at the Central Science Laboratory (CSL) who are anticipating active involvement in research into T. indica and for the CSL Pest Risk Analysis Sub-Team within which I am responsible for assessing the risks to UK agriculture and horticulture from exotic plant pathogens.

Pest Risk Analysis (PRA) is a structured process by which the identification and assessment of the risk of entry, establishment and spread of exotic plant pests (including pathogens) is determined and the potential economic damage arising from their introduction in a given country or area is assessed.  The final stage of PRA is to determine whether the risk posed by a pest is sufficient to warrant phytosanitary measures.  In order to conduct PRA, it is necessary to have access to national lists or other sources which will identify which pests are present in a given country or area of export so that those that are not present in the importing country can be assessed for the risk they pose to plant health.

The purpose of the workshop was "to investigate the opportunities for maximum competitive advantage, including through access to markets previously denied them on quarantine grounds"; and, for "Australia to maintain its competitive trade advantage by keeping its primary industries free from exotic insects, weeds and pathogens and to improve the management of those already in the country".

The workshop attracted around 150 delegates from government, science and industry backgrounds most of whom were from Australia and New Zealand.  The issues dealt with were far-reaching but the title of the workshop on occasion seemed at odds with the content of some of the presentations.  The changes in plant health management required to keep pace with the requirements for trade under the WTO Agreement on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures still appear to need addressing in several respects, on a national basis.  Fundamentally, there appears to be a need for the states to pool their resources both in diagnostic expertise, knowledge and record-keeping.  This will enable those involved in PRA to have up-to-date information on the status of plant pests and pathogens at the national level.

The Australian approach to exotic plant pests seems to hinge upon a pre-emptive strategy with some parts of Australia holding "target lists" of organisms, principally invertebrates, for which surveys and trapping is undertaken.  Once an incursion has been detected expensive eradication programmes seem to be implemented very quickly following a judgment of risk.

There appears to be no quarantine facility in Australia for research into exotic plant pests but there seems to be a wish to undertake such work.  However,  funding is lacking.  The presentations made by "international delegates" (myself, Gary Peterson of the USDA and Dave Penman of New Zealand) all highlighted the need for researchers and risk analysts to link together to identify the areas where research is required.  No presentation on this subject was made by Australia and it is assumed the apparent lack of quarantine facilities for such work is one of the reasons why.

Meetings with the staff of AQIS and the National Office of Animal and Plant Health and Food Safety confirmed the importance of the issues dealt with above and indicated that there is apparently a move towards a national approach for surveillance, diagnostic work and record keeping for pests and diseases, and a wish to fund and provide facilities for research on exotic organisms.

The current approach by AQIS to Pest Risk Analysis is on a commodity basis with multidisciplinary teams devoted to specific commodities.  PRAs are triggered when request for imports occur or when Australia is seeking market access for its own products.  However, the main problem that arises for the teams appear to be the lack of a national list of pests and diseases - states have to be approached individually and the absence of a list of quarantine organisms for Australia must make the tasks more daunting.  There is a desire for these newly-formed PRA teams to evaluate their work in comparison to others by contact with the UK PRA team and the USA and it is hoped that this will occur.

The meetings with staff of the new National Office of Animal and Plant Health and Food Safety gave brief details of their role which principally appears to be incursion management, and supported the wish for future collaboration on PRA.  Finally, following meetings with Australian and American scientists there appears to be a wish to collaborate in a proposal for funding under the EU Fifth Framework for developing a European PRA for Tilletia indica based on the UK work and for an international paper on PRAs conducted for Urocystis agropyri.

At the end of the week my biological clock had adjusted sufficiently for me to enjoy the hospitality of the staff of the National Office and AQIS who entertained me and Gary Peterson to some very palatable wine and presented us with AQIS ties and scarves.  Gary wanted to track down some soybean rust in the last two days of our visit, so a car was hired and I drove us on a route which took in part of the coast, giving us an opportunity (in between rust hunting of course) to dip our feet in the Tasman Sea, feed some beach-inhabiting kangaroos and take in a little of the Australian ambiance.  A return trip is definitely necessary!

Beach kangaroos (surfers and beach towel/picnic pilferers...)

Funding for much of the travel and subsistence for this trip was provided by the British Society for Plant Pathology, the workshop organisers (BRS) and AQIS to whom the author is extremely grateful.

Claire Sansford
Central Science Laboratory, Sand Hutton