Committee of Public Accounts

Press Notice No. 44 of Session 2003-04, dated 26 October 2004


Mr Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, said today that plant and pest diseases can be a serious threat, and so it was disappointing that DEFRA cannot show that its inspections are aimed at the areas of greatest risk.

Mr Leigh was speaking as the Committee published its 44th Report of this Session, which examined the performance of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in stopping plant pests and diseases from entering the country and in managing outbreaks, when they occur, to prevent their spread.

The principal effects of plant pests and diseases are economic, as they can damage the appearance, growth, yield and value of farmers' and growers' produce. Cereals are England's most valuable crop, worth some £2 billion a year. Horticultural produce (vegetables, fruit and ornamentals such as plants and trees) is worth some £1.9 billion a year. Plant pests and diseases can also damage the environment by affecting wild flora.

Primary responsibility for protecting crops rests with farmers and growers. They spend around £87 million a year on fungicides to control major diseases in cereal crops alone, and also pay levies to industry levy boards to fund research into new methods of controlling pests and diseases already established in this country. The Department also has a key part to play, spending £8 million a year regulating the import and movement of plants, plant material and produce, and inspecting imports and exports of plants and premises of growers. Where any high risk pests or diseases are identified, the Department takes action to contain and eradicate them before they spread. Farmers and growers have to pay for any infected crops to be treated or destroyed and, unlike some livestock diseases, receive no compensation from the government. The Department spends a further £14 million on research into the diagnosis and control of pests and diseases already established in this country.

The Committee found that few inspections detect plant pests and diseases reflecting either a low incidence of pests and diseases in imports, or poorly targeted or poor quality inspections. The Department cannot demonstrate that its inspections are well targeted and carried out properly. It should institute a peer review system to provide assurance on the quality of inspections, and adopt an enhanced risk based approach to inspections as recommended above. The Department should base its annual inspection targets on scientific and statistical advice to address the key risks and to meet European Commission requirements.

The Department should sharpen its risk management so that the highest risks command the highest priority for inspection resources. The Department regards plant imports from outside the European Union as presenting the greatest risk of pests and diseases, but fails to meet its own targets of inspecting all such material within two weeks of entry into the country. By exceeding the two week deadline, the Department places farmers and growers at risk as the imported material may have been planted out or distributed to other approved importers increasing the risk of spread of diseases or pests.

The Department should take advantage of the country's high reputation for plant health through improved food labelling. It should work with supermarkets and the industry to explain to consumers that products covered by the Red Tractor mark meet the United Kingdom's standards for plant health.

The Department's compensation arrangements for farmers are inconsistent. Livestock farmers are being compensated for some losses caused by disease but no compensation is available for farmers or growers who lose agricultural or horticultural crops through pest or disease. The Department should review the circumstances in which compensation schemes might be appropriate across the range of farming and horticultural activity, taking into account the benefits and disbenefits of such schemes, the cost to the taxpayer, and the feasibility of alternatives such as insurance or levy schemes. Crop insurance or levy schemes would spread the risk and might also encourage prompt notification of pests and diseases.

The shrinking pool of suitably qualified science graduates puts the future of the Department's plant health work at risk. The Department should work in partnership with universities, the industry and levy bodies to increase the provision of scholarships and bursaries in relevant subjects. It should consider bringing in more scientists from its counterparts in other countries through secondment or on fixed term assignments where it needs specific expertise.

The Department's plant health team should work with the Pesticides Safety Directorate and with the industry to facilitate the development of other means of control such as pest resistant crops before key pesticides or other control measures are due to be withdrawn. The Department's success in containing and eradicating a case of Thrips palmi, an insect which affects greenhouse crops, depended on the use of pesticides that have since been banned. Rhizomania in sugar beet was contained but not eradicated and resistant varieties of the crop were not developed before containment measures were lifted.

Mr Leigh said today:

"Plant and pest diseases can be a serious threat, potentially putting farmers and growers' livelihoods at stake, damaging our national economy and our environment. It is disappointing that DEFRA cannot show that its inspections are aimed at the areas of greatest risk; detection rates are low but at the moment we can't tell if this means there are few pests and diseases getting through or that inspection is not working properly. And the risks are certainly increased where DEFRA is failing to meet its own target to inspect plant imports from outside the EU within two weeks. I urge DEFRA to improve its risk assessment and quality control over its inspections."

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