Ladies and Gentlemen, as someone who has a particular love of farming, forestry and gardening, I can only say how deeply frustrating it has been that I could not be here with you this morning to take part in your discussions, which I know will have been as fascinating as they are urgent, and no doubt including some very good jokes from Charlotte Smith I suspect. I hope therefore, that you will forgive me if I end up covering some of the ground that the many eminent and knowledgeable speakers have already touched upon.
Now, I have had a fascination and love for plants, and trees, as a key part of the natural world, for as long as I can remember. And at one level, plants of all shapes and sizes play an utterly invaluable and indispensable role in setting the scene for each of our lives. They contribute to a sense of place, of continuity and of belonging. For instance, a waft of scent from a flower can return us instantly to childhood days in a family garden. And nothing perturbs a community quite like the thoughtless feeling of neighbourhood trees or the unnecessary mowing of roadside verges.
At an entirely different level, plants are the foundation of all life on Earth, as you know far better than I, and the ultimate source of the air and the sustenance we require to stay alive. Their role in helping to regulate climate, not least by absorbing carbon dioxide is of course, absolutely crucial. Now, at last, we are beginning to realize that crises like climate change and biodiversity loss are not two different things, but rather just two faces of the same crisis – the crisis of our fossil based economic system. The way forward, however, is clear – a new economic system that functions within the renewable boundaries of our planet. And above all, we need to address the past failure of our economy to value Nature – because Nature and life (bio), instead of fossil resources, need to become the prosperity engine of a new, circular bioeconomy. The advance of this bioeconomy means that everything made of oil can now be made from wood. So there is a real incentive to put Nature and biodiversity back at the centre of our economy.
So from every angle plants play an absolutely vital role in our existence. But the ultimate irony is that just as we are realizing this we have also managed to engineer a global plant health crisis. We are now, finally, seeing an upsurge in concern about the environmental risks we are facing. This concern comes not just from individual people who are alarmed at the way we are treating our planet. Every year, the World Economic Forum publishes its panel’s assessment of the global risks landscape. Prior to 2010 there were no environmental risks in the top five. This year, all five of the top global risks in terms of likelihood are classified as environmental risks: extreme weather, failure to act on climate change, natural disasters, biodiversity loss and human-made environmental disasters. I mean, that is an extraordinary, if hideously overdue, change in perception in the course of a single decade.
Against that background, and as I have been trying to get across for quite some years, plant health and biosecurity are more than ever a fundamental requirement of sound environmental risk management. On the basis that only a catastrophe concentrates minds sufficiently, it is at least encouraging that this year has been designated as the International Year of Plant Health and Mr Ralf Lopian, of the Finnish Ministry of Agriculture & Forestry, who has been kind enough to join us here today, should be congratulated for proposing it.
We really need to use this year to raise much greater awareness that this is a mainstream issue, with a great deal at stake. This applies both to your fellow professionals and to the public. I defy anyone to visit the Government’s excellent Plant Health Information Portal and look at the pest factsheets without being alarmed. I have been alarmed for years, but “business as usual” is a powerful factor to overcome, as I have discovered over the years. The problem is making the right people aware that this is something they need to do. Somehow, we have to help everyone to understand how much is at stake here and get them thinking, as I have attempted to do over quite a long period of time as a result of frequent visits to the Antipodes, about plant health and biosecurity as seriously as they do in countries such as in Australia and New Zealand, where the most stringent precautions are taken, understood and accepted. As I learned to my cost, having first arrived in Australia in 1966 and when I landed in Melbourne airport, somebody came on board and sprayed us all with some insecticide and when we walked off the aeroplane, they stepped into some interesting chemicals at the bottom of the aircraft steps, so I began to wonder whether I was really wanted there at all.
Now Ladies and Gentlemen, two years ago, I held the latest of a series of conferences at Highgrove, with people from all of the various plant sectors, to discuss what could be done. I am pleased to say that this resulted in the formation of the Plant Health & Biosecurity Alliance chaired by Sir Nicholas Bacon. I’m enormously grateful to him for having taken on this task. This group is looking at a number of detailed issues, in conjunction with industry bodies and the Government. I do want to thank everyone involved for their contributions, including, particularly, the Minister for Rural Affairs and Biosecurity, Lord Gardiner, who is continuing to take a close personal interest as we’ve heard in this subject. It is certainly encouraging to all of us that his Department is regarding this as a priority.
Now, at this point I wish I could say that all the right measures are in place and we just need to keep going. Unfortunately, the facts do not support that conclusion. There is, of course, a huge amount of excellent work under way. For example, the ground-breaking efforts being made here at Kew by Professor Richard Buggs and his Plant Health Research Group, looking at the genomics of ash species. The genes they are identifying could, in time, help us to overcome ash dieback and the emerald ash borer. And Kew is also leading the way on biosecurity practices and, if I may say so, the all-important issue of quarantining, as we’ve now heard, not least because of the threats to their own priceless collections. Incidentally, as Patron of the Royal Botanic Gardens, I must say that I was enormously proud to hear about all this work.
Ladies and Gentlemen, the overriding problem is that the threats we are facing are growing all the time. There are now more than 1,000 pests and diseases on the United Kingdom’s Plant Health Risk Register; the rapid movement of people and products around the world shows no sign of abating as I discovered visiting Heathrow airport last year, and, perversely, management practices increasingly seem to favour disastrously vulnerable monocultures over the resilience that comes from diversity.
Many of us have lived through the loss of an estimated twenty-five million elms from our countryside, with a devastating impact on our landscape, we have seen larch and sweet chestnuts ravaged by Phytophthora ramorum, as I know to our cost in the Duchy of Cornwall; we wait in anguish for the seemingly inevitable signs of ash dieback and we worry about Acute Oak Decline. No-one quite knows what the next threat will be, but we know there is a long list of equally horrible prospects.
It seems to me that at a time when we are relying on huge tree planting schemes to play a significant role in mitigating climate change, when the nurserymen tell us that there simply aren’t enough trees available at present; when pests and diseases are causing major losses of biodiversity, and when we are increasingly aware of the contribution that plants make to our quality of life, and can now make to a circular bioeconomy, we simply have to be more cautious, more vigilant and more demanding, very demanding, in tackling this major environmental risk.
Now I am sure, Ladies and Gentlemen, it is abundantly clear to the experts in this room that this is yet another instance where prevention is very much better than cure because, once established, experience shows that many plant pests and diseases simply cannot be eradicated, at any cost. Even attempting to manage them is expensive and difficult and the impacts on forestry, horticulture, food security and all the associated livelihoods are immense. So, as so often happens, we now have a critical battle against time on our hands.
There really is no substitute for the best science, the most careful sourcing and traceability, the tightest biosecurity and the utmost precaution, backed up by good cooperation, both between sectors and of course between nations. I have already tried to play my part in this regard, for what it’s worth, but we must, Ladies and Gentlemen, redouble, triple, actually quadruple our efforts if we are to rescue the situation for the future.
The diseased trees tend to be full of the sound of chickens coming home to roost nowadays, but I know you are all as committed to the task of putting it all right again as I am and I can only wish you every possible success, because it is most certainly in our collective interest for you all to succeed.