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International Year of Plant Health 2020

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 19th November 2019.

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Photo of Mairi Gougeon Mairi Gougeon Scottish National Party

I am delighted to have the opportunity to set out our plans to mark and celebrate the international year of plant health in 2020. This initiative of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization aims to protect plants globally and is described as

“a once in a lifetime opportunity to raise global awareness on how protecting plant health can help end hunger, reduce poverty, protect the environment, and boost economic development.”

As the Minister for Rural Affairs and the Natural Environment, with responsibility for plant health, I am determined that Scotland will play its part and seize this opportunity.

Many members will probably not have given plant health much thought, and I am pretty sure that it does not come up very often on the doorstep, but it is critical to our very existence, a fundamental building block of our economy and crucial for the environment and for biodiversity. Quite simply, plant health matters.

In Scotland, healthy plants are estimated to be worth around £19.2 billion to the rural economy every year. They help to make Scotland the country that we all know and love, and they underpin tourism, scientific study, medicine and leisure and recreational activities, as well as communities’ sense of place and cohesion and people’s physical and mental health and wellbeing.

I cannot imagine a Scotland in autumn without its woodland coat of many colours, without the white sweep of blackthorn blossom and hills of purple heather in spring, or without the sharp, sweet taste of locally grown raspberries and strawberries in summer.

Freedom of movement of goods and people undoubtedly brings huge benefits to Scotland, but globalisation increases the risk of new pests and diseases reaching us. Plant health threats can travel hidden in nursery plants and the compost that they grow in, in plant products, packaging, wood and vehicles, and in holidaymakers’ luggage—even in the soil carried on our shoes.

There are already more than 1,000 pests and diseases threatening the health of plants in the United Kingdom across forestry, crops and the natural environment, and the number of threats continues to increase due to climate change and trade globalisation. For example, the common ash tree is under real threat from Chalara fraxinea—ash dieback—a fungus that is fatal to the species and which has already decimated populations in England. It is predicted to kill 95 to 99 per cent of ash trees in the UK, with an estimated cost to the UK of £15 billion in operational costs and lost benefits such as water and air purification and carbon sequestration. The total cost is 50 times larger than the annual value of trade in live plants to and from the UK, but the biggest cost is said to be the lost benefits to society.

We have legislation in place to prevent the movement of ash trees, plants and seeds, which will help to slow the spread of the fungus to uninfected areas. In 2018, we introduced a Chalara action plan, which was agreed with stakeholders and which sets out our key priorities around research, surveillance and monitoring, prophylactic and reactive measures and communications to best minimise the impacts of the disease. However, there is a glimmer of hope on the horizon, with the news just yesterday that a study has identified the genes that give trees resistance to the disease. Although that will not help the trees that are currently affected, it could help future populations.

Likewise, there is a real threat of an outbreak of the bacterium Xylella, which has more than 560 identified host species and is decimating crops in parts of Europe. If it arrives in Scotland, it will have a devastating impact on our trade in plants and trees and our wider environment, creating economic loss in the process.

Only last week here in Scotland, experts were advising that the potato cyst nematode is an on-going concern, due to its longevity in the soil once introduced. That pathogen could potentially wipe out our seed potato industry by 2025 if the current rate of land lost to it continues. We test all soils that are being used to produce seed potatoes for the pathogen, but we need to work collaboratively with industry and researchers to find a sustainable solution to protect the industry.

We must continue to invest in science, research, monitoring and testing, but we must all play our part in minimising and mitigating the risks to plant health, not least as part of our fight against climate change. We simply cannot afford to do nothing, not least because plants and trees are our greatest allies in the fight against climate change. As nature’s barometers, they tell us so much about the changing temperatures across the world, including in Scotland, and will help us adapt to climate change and to mitigate it by sequestering and storing greenhouse gases. Scotland’s forests are a significant carbon sink, absorbing around 9.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year. That is why we are committed to planting 24 million trees this year.

That is not all that we are doing. In 2016, we published “The Scottish Plant Health Strategy”, which set out our approach to protecting plants across Scotland and improving biosecurity. In 2017, the Scottish Government appointed the first ever Scottish chief plant health officer to provide strategic leadership across all plant health sectors. In 2018, we established a new virtual plant health centre for Scotland, to co-ordinate activity across sectors, to monitor plant diseases and to help stakeholders understand how to improve their plant health capabilities.

The centre has already strengthened our contingency plans against key threats such as the bacterium Xylella and has informed us on the impact to agriculture from the withdrawal of the pesticide metaldehyde. This spring, we published a new forestry strategy for Scotland, setting out a 50-year vision for Scotland’s forests and woodlands with a 10-year action framework to continue to grow and protect our trees, woods and forests.

Every year, the Scottish Government provides core funding of £47 million to Scotland’s research institutes and invests £7 million in plant health research to fill evidence gaps across all sectors. Our world-leading plant scientists such as those at the James Hutton Institute have long benefited from international research funding and collaborations that have contributed to plant health solutions. We will use the international year of plant health to showcase our role as part of a vibrant international research community.

Of course, we also enter 2020 with huge uncertainty about the impact of Brexit on that international activity. We face the loss of scientists who have come to work and live in Scotland, many of whom I have met in recent months. We can never say often enough that they are welcome here and that we want them to stay. We know that Brexit has diminished the enthusiasm of others to collaborate with Scottish institutions on research projects and funding applications. The loss of being part of one of the world’s very best scientific communities, with free and ready access to up-to-date science and evidence, and protections through European Union-wide regulations and standards, threatens to compromise our ability to protect Scotland’s plants and trees. The Government is determined to keep pace with EU standards and regulations and will do all that it can to prevent our high standards from being compromised by trade deals designed for a race to the bottom by future UK Governments.

We will not allow the strides that have been made in building resilience against plant health threats to be undone. Instead, we will resolve to use the international year of plant health as a platform upon which to build. We plan to engage with industry, scientists, other organisations and the public, particularly children and young people. It is vital that we educate and enthuse children and young people about the role that plants have to play in securing their future and that we inspire their interest and curiosity, while encouraging behaviours that we want them to take into work and life in adulthood. That would provide a lasting legacy for the international year of plant health in Scotland.

Forestry and Land Scotland and the National Trust for Scotland host children’s bug hunts throughout the year at a range of venues, and we will participate in some of Scotland’s science festivals with plant-themed activities. Every person can make a difference, even with small changes and actions. That is the message that we will be promoting through the international year of plant health.

The Scottish Government and its partners will spend more time showing the public, especially the nation’s gardeners, how they can help protect Scotland’s biosecurity. We will therefore join forces with the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh to help celebrate its 350th year in 2020, with a year-long biosecurity exhibition in the John Hope gateway. The Scottish Government will host a plant health conference in March, and there will be a series of industry round-table events to explore current and emerging threats to plant health.

I have provided just a snapshot of some of the activities that are currently being planned to celebrate and mark the international year of plant health. I am hopeful that there will be activity in the Parliament and activity that all members can engage with. I am happy to update Parliament with more detail of the planned programme as it develops.

I hope that we can agree today that ensuring that Scotland is fully involved in the international year of plant health is not just a good use of our time and energy, but an essential one. It will allow us to share our often world-leading research and science in the area. With the threats to plant health increasing, and given that the impacts of an outbreak are potentially devastating, our involvement will allow us to spread the message to safeguard our plants, and it will enable us to raise awareness and understanding of the critical role that plants and trees play in our everyday life, not least in tackling climate change.

I look forward to working with members across the Parliament to make our programme for the international year of plant health a success.