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expert reaction to the Defra plant biosecurity strategy for Great Britain (2023 to 2028)

A policy paper has been published by Defra detailing the plan to protect plant biosecurity in Great Britain.


Prof Dale Sanders, Former Director, The John Innes Centre, and Visiting Professor, University of York, said:

“Robust plant health underpins the sustainability of our agriculture and forestry industries and the maintenance of biodiversity.  This wide-ranging strategy considers the threats to plant health that include trade and climate change, and proposes biosecurity-enhancing approaches that range from application of the latest high-tech genomic approaches to the enhancement of public awareness and citizen science.  The strategy is well-conceived and timely and when implemented should secure a UK environment that is protective of plant health.”


Prof Nick Talbot FRS, Executive Director of The Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich, said:

“We welcome the recommendations outlined in the new biosecurity strategy. To protect Great Britain’s food security we need effective policies in place to not only reduce the spread of plant pests and disease, but also to ensure that our crops are prepared for emerging threats.

“We are particularly excited to see the focus on research and technology in Outcome 4 of the strategy which endeavours to build our plant health capability so that GB can keep pace with changing threats and be prepared for the future. There have been incredible advances in genomics in the last few decades which have revolutionized our understanding of plant health. We encourage the government to embrace these advances through genomic surveillance of plant pathogens and by using genetic technologies to develop more resilient and sustainable, disease resistant crops that don’t rely on agrochemicals.”


Dr Alexey Mikaberidze, Lecturer in Crop Protection, School of Agriculture, Policy and Development, University of Reading, said:

“Plants are a key component of the Earth’s ecosystem. They provide us with oxygen, food, energy, medicine and building materials, they make our cities liveable by creating shade and opportunities for recreation, they have cultural and spiritual significance. According to the recent Global Plant Health Assessment conducted by about 100 scientists across the world [1], plant health is not in a good state worldwide and the UK is not an exception. Plant health in the UK is threatened by a range of pests and diseases, and tackling newly emerging threats is especially challenging. It is great to see that Defra’s new biosecurity strategy emphasises the importance of plant health and outlines concrete steps to reduce the rate of introduction of new pests and diseases into the UK, to manage their spread and to raise public awareness about plant health.

“Yet, to cause a damaging outbreak, a newly introduced pest or pathogen needs proliferate sufficiently to establish itself in a new location. This requires favourable environmental conditions or genetic adaptation. However, our understanding of processes responsible for pest/disease establishment remains rudimentary. Existing risk and horizon scanning approach underlying the UK Plant Health Risk Register [2], based on scientific literature and simple probabilistic calculations informed by expert opinions is extremely useful, and Defra’s commitment to boost these efforts in the new strategy is reassuring. But a more quantitative, systems level understanding of the processes that drive pest/disease establishment is needed to tackle emerging threats to plant health in a more effective and cost-efficient manner. This knowledge would then inform targeted monitoring and intervention efforts. Acquiring this knowledge will require multi-disciplinary, long-term research funding beyond the existing schemes of the UKRI. Defra’s new strategy signals the Government’s serious commitment to protecting plant health, and I hope that it will be followed by crucially needed additional funding of plant health research.”




Dr David Slawson, Visiting Researcher Imperial College London, Coordinator UK Tree Health Citizen Science Network (former OPAL Director), said:

“Overall, I welcome and support strongly the revised Plant Biosecurity strategy for Great Britain, which helpfully builds on the previous strategy. The threats from new plant pests and diseases are real – they threaten not only commercial agriculture and horticulture but also wider biodiversity and nature, a point that was helpfully acknowledged in the Joint Ministerial Foreword. Increasing our country’s resilience to future threats requires the holistic and collaborative approach contained in the strategy.

“The strong focus on measures ‘pre-border’ and ‘at the border’ is vital because the old adage “prevention is better than cure” definitely applies to plant pests and diseases.  Eradication of established outbreaks is always expensive and very rarely successful especially if spread to the natural environment has occurred.

“Given my personal interest and involvement in the area of Citizen Science, I strongly support the strategy’s outcomes related to Citizen Science. 

“Capacity – the limited number of people trained to observe and report sightings of plant pests and diseases – is a key issue.  Basically, the current official plant health surveillance network is limited in number and geographic distribution. The outcomes in the strategy should bolster the number of people trained to observe and report plant pests and diseases. One additional way that this could be achieved would be to develop specific collaborations between the biosecurity community and organisations/citizens in the biological recording community who already possess relevant skills of species observation, identification and recording. At times of need, each community could report species of interest to the other community.

“Note: Other countries are adopting a similar approach e.g. New Zealand has adopted the ambitious target to involve all 4.7 million of their people in biosecurity (see  A biosecurity team of 4.7 million – A collective effort across the country – every New Zealander becomes a biosecurity risk manager and every business manages their own biosecurity risk

“Data – Involving more people in surveillance will generate more verified species data, from more places, and over more time, which will increase understanding of the presence and distribution not only of plant pests and pathogens but also host plants. But, for these data to make a real difference to the management of pests and diseases, they need to be made more accessible not only to officials (e.g. policymakers and inspectors) but also to landowners and businesses who need to make management decisions to protect themselves from plant pests and diseases, and to researchers.

“Currently, in GB, virtually all plant pest and pathogen data are held on various closed official databases. Other countries e.g. Australia are developing ways to make plant pest and pathogen data accessible using their existing biodiversity platform – The Atlas of Living Australia . In the UK, this could be achieved by using the atlases of the National Biodiversity Network which share the same platform as the Atlas of Living Australia.”


Prof Sarah Gurr, Professor of Molecular Plant Pathology, Chair in Food Security, University of Exeter, said:

“This initiative is very welcome. It comes at a time of heightened public awareness about the perils of pandemic disease, following the global COVID outbreak, and our need to focus now on the plight of plants to pests and pathogens. It also highlights the need to “grow” more plant scientists and for all to realise the need for heightened global food security. It will, however, need realistic funding to become attainable rather than aspirational.”



Plant biosecurity strategy for Great Britain (2023 to 2028)’ was published by Defra at 00:01 UK time Monday 9 January 2023.



Declared interests

Prof Nick Talbot: “Nick is in receipt of funding from The Gatsby Charitable Foundation, The Leverhulme Trust and UKRI (BBSRC and GCRF Funding) and is a Gatsby Plant Science Advisor. He is also a member of the John Innes Governing Council and Board member of PBL Technology.”

Prof Sarah Gurr: “I sit on the Scottish Government RESAS committee, am involved in Plant Health Scotland, James Hutton Institute and am a Trustee at The Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh. I am a member of The British Society for Plant Pathology and am, albeit intermittently, involved with the BBSRC.”

Dr David Slawson: “As part of my roles as coordinator of the UK Tree Health Citizen Science Network, I did write the “tree health citizen science learning pathway” which is referenced in the strategy. In addition, I am a volunteer on the Observatree project that is mentioned in the strategy.”

For all other experts, no reply to our request for DOIs was received.

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