Cuts trigger plant warning

February 13, 2004

Experts have warned of the potential threat of new plant diseases with the news that the third state-funded agriculture research centre in four years faces closure.

The Silsoe Research Institute (SRI) is to lose its core funding in 2006, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council has announced.

Union leaders warned that this latest blow to the research community could further blight the UK's ability to respond to plant disease threats, echoing the nation's recent crises with foot-and-mouth disease and BSE.

Nigel Titchen, president of trade union Prospect's science, engineering and technology group representing Silsoe staff, described the closure plans as "ill thought out". He said key areas of science might "slip between the slats" and not be funded at all.

"We will only find that out when we are faced with a new crisis.

Foot-and-mouth disease and BSE cropped up unexpectedly. If we chip away at the science base, we are reducing our ability to respond to such crises."

The BBSRC decided last week not to renew its core strategic grant to Silsoe, which specialises in the engineering side of plant science, to free funds for key areas of research. One-third of the 200 staff will be transferred to other institutions.

In 1999, the BBSRC decided to close the Institute of Arable Crops Research, Long Ashton, while Horticulture Research International is being downsized and merged with Warwick University after a review by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Michael Wilson, chief executive of Horticulture Research International, said government funding agencies were keen to invest in research into animal diseases. The BBSRC is spending millions of pounds on new facilities at the Institute for Animal Health, in Pirbright, Surrey, a key centre in the foot-and-mouth outbreak.

But he warned that the government must not take its eye off plant diseases.

He said: "It's a cycle - if you ignore one area, Darwinian evolution will produce new threats and diseases. Sooner or later a problem will emerge, particularly if we go more organic."

Chris Leaver, professor of plant sciences at Oxford University, agreed: "If we underinvest in plant pathology, it is going to be at our peril."

Kim Hammond-Kosack, a leading plant disease expert at Rothamsted Research, insisted that the UK remained a major international force in plant disease research and that the reorganisation did not affect this.

She said there was concern about the emergence of a new fungicide-resistant mutant strain of septoria leaf blotch, one of the most damaging diseases in wheat.

But she observed that government experts were scouring the country to identify affected crops and were liaising with scientists on how to respond.

"There are enough people with expertise who can come in quickly and deal with what's going on," she said.

Julia Goodfellow, the BBSRC's chief executive, said the SRI's research activities were spread too widely to give it the required critical mass of expertise in core areas.

"Regrettably, the BBSRC can find no solution other than a radical change in the way it funds this research," she said.

New threats

  • Septoria leaf blotch - one of the most damaging wheat diseases in the UK. A new strain has emerged that can withstand the principal agricultural fungicide used to combat it. Last year's dry spell held the mutant at bay
  • Fusarium ear blight also attacks wheat. Scientists fear that this fungal infection is primed and ready to damage harvests in the UK. Not only does it have a profound effect on wheat grain quality, it also has food safety implications as the fungus produces mycotoxins
  • Sudden Oak death - a forest disease that has ravaged California and has now been identified in a number of trees across the UK. The infection can also affect Douglas fir and rhododendrons, among other species.

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