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Protecting plant and animal health

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LIKE the chicken and the egg, it's difficult to be sure what came first, the strategy or the agency. Nevertheless, a report called ‘Animal and Plant Health in the UK: Building our science capability’, which was published by the Government Office for Science and Defra in the week before Christmas,1 makes fascinating reading, not least because it comes just a couple of months after the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) was formed by merging elements of the Food and Environment Research Agency with the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency (VR, August 30, 2014, vol 175, p 182; October 4, 2014, vol 175, p 314).

It is, for example, surprising to learn that, despite all the effort and other reports that have been devoted to scientific strategy over the years, the report represents the first attempt to form a strategic approach to animal and plant health across the UK involving cooperation and collaboration across government departments, the devolved administrations and the research councils. Also of interest, particularly in the current funding climate, is the report's observation that, although the UK Government and the devolved administrations are funding a substantial amount of animal and plant health science, and there are some good examples of coordination and collaboration, ‘the science landscape is too complex and distributed to self-organise effectively’.

‘With little evidence of a coordinated UK-level vision for animal and plant health science and no agreed set of priorities to incentivise collaboration and cooperation, there is,’ the report suggests, ‘too much scope for duplication (costly) and gaps (risky) in science infrastructure, skills and evidence generation, all of which may reduce the cost-effectiveness of government investment.’

The report, which has been produced under the aegis of the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Mark Walport, and Defra's Chief Scientific Adviser, Professor Ian Boyd, aims to ‘determine the UK's future needs for science capability to predict, detect and respond to animal and plant pests and diseases’. It rightly points out that there are many animal and plant disease threats to the UK that could have important consequences for society, and that it is important to have the scientific capability to deal with them. It argues that a new ‘UK-level vision’ is needed for animal and plant health science and suggests that this should be: ‘The UK has the science capability to protect and enhance the contributions animal and plant health make to society’. It says that ‘an improved culture of coordination, collaboration and sharing of good practice across plant, animal and human health sciences will be needed to deliver this vision’ and suggests that this could be achieved by establishing a new ‘UK Science Partnership for Animal and Plant Health’ to develop a more integrated, whole-system approach to animal and plant health science.

It would be difficult to disagree with the vision proposed in the report, although it would have been nice to think that the UK already had the capability that the vision aspires to. Equally, the report makes a good case for developing an interdisciplinary approach to animal and plant health, which could undoubtedly bring benefits in a number of areas. However, while there may be areas where an interdisciplinary approach could create synergies, there are others where specific expertise will continue to be needed. Plants don't get flu, for example, and animals don't usually go down with blight. There are some fundamental differences between animals and plants, and this needs to be recognised by policymakers if the necessary skills base is to be developed and maintained.

To some extent, the report seems to place more emphasis on developing capability in relation to plant diseases than animal diseases. This might be a consequence of the discovery of ash dieback disease in the UK in 2012. Compared to the effort devoted to preventing and preparing to respond to animal disease outbreaks – itself the result of hard experience – this seemed to catch the Government relatively unawares.

The report places welcome emphasis on the economic and ‘public good’ aspects of safeguarding plant and animal health, and it is refreshing to see the UK's equine and racing industries being considered in this context, along with agriculture, forestry, fisheries and aquaculture. However, this does raise the question of why companion animals were not also included in the analysis, given the economic and societal significance of this sector.

In calling for more collaboration and cooperation – geographically as well as in terms of interdisciplinary working – the report is right to emphasise the importance of eliminating duplication of effort and filling current capability gaps, particularly at a time when funding is limited. Too often, however, such calls for efficiency, however well intended, end up being used as an excuse for further cost-cutting, which risks creating capability gaps in itself. It will be important to ensure that, in this instance, that doesn't happen.

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