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Shortage of plant disease experts threatens tree and crop health

Press release issued: 5 November 2012

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 according to a recently published report led by University of Bristol academics. Researchers say that findings from the 'Audit of Plant Pathology Education and Training in the UK' threaten Britain's ability to combat new diseases of trees and crop.

Researchers say that findings from the British Society for Plant Pathology (BSPP)-funded report threaten Britain's ability to combat new diseases of trees and crop as they show a serious decline in teaching and research on plant diseases in British universities and colleges.

Whilst plant pathology still plays a very prominent part of teaching and research at the University of Bristol, the 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, led by Dr Diane Hird at the University’s School of Biological Sciences, attributes the loss of expertise to a shift towards subjects which bring more short-term income into higher education institutions.

Professor James Brown, President of the British Society of Plant Pathology, said: “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. One of the most worrying finding is the decline in practical training in plant pathology.

“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. 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.

“All areas of plant pathology in Britain are under strain. We are especially worried that there are now very few UK experts left in diseases of trees and vegetables.”

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.

Professor Gary Foster, from the University’s School of Biological Sciences and incoming Vice President of BSPP, added: “Plant pathogens affect us all, from the price of our foods, to the plants we can grow in our gardens and allotments, through to our countryside and landscapes.  The battle against pathogens happens on a daily basis and we need well trained scientists and specialists to protect the vital food and crops we need worldwide.”

Dr Andy Bailey, a plant pathologist at the University's School of Biological Sciences, Bristol, commented: “Teaching students to recognise a few common plant diseases isn’t good enough. If we truly want food security, we need to invest in the next generation of plant pathologists so they have the knowledge and skills to identify and treat the new diseases which are likely to emerge under changing environmental conditions.”

Further information

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 (see http://www.bspp.org.uk/society/bspp_plant_pathology_audit_2012.php ). It reports on teaching in plant pathology in Higher Education Institutes (HEI; universities and colleges) in the UK.

Some key findings are:

(i) Plant pathology is no longer taught at 5 HEI and staffing levels have been reduced significantly at a further six HEI;

(ii) 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;

(iii) only one in four of these 103 HEI (only about one in seven of all HEI in the UK) teach plant pathology practical classes, so critical hands-on training and expertise is at risk;

(iv) 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 five to ten 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 per cent 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 ten 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.