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Combining plant and animal health

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THE Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency (AHVLA) still seems to be grappling with the consequences of the Government's last reorganisation of its agencies during the ‘bonfire of the quangos’ in 2010, not to mention the effects of government spending cuts, so news of another reorganisation, announced during the dog days of August, is less than reassuring. In a news story posted on its website on August 11, the Government explained that a new combined agency – made up of the AHVLA and various elements of the Food and Environment Research Agency (Fera) – will start work on October 1, to ‘better equip the government to prevent the spread of animal and plant diseases, and to respond to emergencies’.

It is just over three years since the AHVLA was formed in April 2011 by merging the Veterinary Laboratories Agency with the agency Animal Health (formerly the State Veterinary Service); now it is about to be reorganised again.

The new agency will be called the Animal and Plant Health Agency. It will combine four of Fera's functions with the AHVLA: the Bee Inspectorate, the Plant Health and Seeds Inspectorate, the Plant Variety and Seeds Group, and the GM Inspectorate. According to the Government's news release, ‘Animal and plant inspectors have a strong history of working together in times of disease emergency, and this will be made easier when they are part of the same organisation. The Animal and Plant Health Agency will also play a vital role in stopping pests, diseases, and invasive non-native species entering the UK.’

According to the environment minister, Lord de Mauley, ‘Bringing together animal health and plant health inspection functions in the Animal and Plant Health Agency makes very good sense. It will enable joined-up working on plant and animal diseases and pests, and will increase our resilience and flexibility to respond to emergencies.’

Really? This journal would be the last to deny the importance of a multidisciplinary approach to disease and other challenges, particularly at a time when the One Health concept is rightly gaining ground, but the idea that animal and plant health inspectors have a strong history of working together in times of disease emergencies will be news to many people and, even in these days of constant media management, seems to be stretching things a bit too far. When the AHVLA was formed by combining the VLA with Animal Health in 2011 there was a certain logic to the merger, which combined the veterinary investigative functions of the VLA with the veterinary field functions of Animal Health (VR, July 3, 2010, vol 167, p 2). That kind of rationale is much less obvious in the case of this latest reorganisation. A farmer is no more likely to want a botanist to look at his dairy herd than to want a vet to examine his cereals.

The reorganisation may have more to do with the Government's plans for Fera than with any recognition of the benefits of a multidisciplinary approach. In May, Owen Paterson, the then Secretary of State at Defra, announced in Parliament that Defra was launching a procurement exercise to find a joint venture partner for Fera to ‘protect and enhance its scientific capabilities in the long term, and free it from public sector constraints’, leading to accusations from the Opposition and others that Fera was being privatised. In announcing the plans, however, Mr Paterson made clear that certain statutory and enforcement functions that Fera provides – through the Bee Inspectorate, the Plant Health and Seeds Inspectorate and the GM Inspectorate – were outside the scope of the joint venture and would remain in the ‘Defra network’. It is these assorted functions that are now being incorporated into the AHVLA.

The name of the new agency might reflect the wider range of its activities but, from a veterinary perspective, the loss of the world ‘veterinary’ from the title is worrying. Changes in agency and departmental names shouldn't really matter, but somehow they do. They can lead to a shift in emphasis and new priorities in organisations, and potentially to focus being lost, as seemed to happen in 2001, for example, when the Government replaced the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food with Defra and the word ‘agriculture’ was dropped from the ministry's title.

The merger of the VLA and Animal Health in 2011 raised concerns that reorganisation would be accompanied by rationalisation, which unfortunately seem to have been realised since. It must be hoped that, as the agency is reorganised again, history does not repeat itself, with potentially damaging consequences for both plant and animal health.

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