Innovation in Plant Biosecurity

Biosecurity and plant health is an awkward area for landscape architects to engage in: we tend to be generalists and biosecurity is a fast-changing and highly technical field with environmental, political and economic implications. Nevertheless, it’s an essential strand to what we do and understanding how our designs and actions affect biosecurity is a challenge.

The Landscape Institute has a Biosecurity Group which provides guidance and shares relevant developments with landscape architects but it feels that it is one of many sources of information on a subject that is dominated by academic researchers and government agencies. Our challenge is not only to understand how we need to develop our practices but also simply, where do we go to find out more? Sure, the Landscape Institute has a Biosecurity Group but I worry that we are seen as slightly obscure and technical.

So how can we ensure that landscape architects are putting the research into practice? We have a Code of Conduct that we abide by and that is required learning on the Pathway to Chartership, so we could write a code that specifically addresses plant health. Could we set up an award for LI members and clients that celebrates best practice for biosecurity, or provide training for ‘landscape professionals’? Perhaps we should work more closely with non-professional organisations? Perhaps the role of the CDMC could be modified to address biosecurity and Risk Assessments broadened? At the moment landscape architects and the Landscape Institute feel like outsiders to the debate both in terms of our actions and in terms of how our profession is seen by others, as seen in this research (and in pic below). In truth, we are both the cause of some of the problems but also well-placed to be part of the solution.

Biosecurity in practice – we all have a role to play

Fera held a conference a few weeks ago to discuss innovation in plant biosecurity. Mostly attended by Fera scientists and representatives of government agencies, it presented new work on the technical aspects of plant health, identified current and likely future risks and discussed public-facing initiatives but there seemed to be a missing link- very few landscape architects, conservationists and land managers were there (I think I was the only landscape architect).

Professionals are well-placed to bridge the gap between ‘the public’ and the scientists and the government agencies and at a time when the environmental, political and economic future is so uncertain, it feels like a great time for us to join the debate. In particular, it seems that landscape architects are well placed in their practice to address the social aspects of plant health but maybe the Landscape Institute (or collaborations at an organisational level) are better suited to engaging in the political arena and developing guidance. At the very least, I would be interested in a report that assess the implications of our designs and interventions in the landscape- it would be a good starting point for positioning ourselves in the debate and assessing what we need to do next.

I’ve summarised some of the themes below and mentioned who raised the issues: as Nicola Spence pointed out, biosecurity is not just dependent upon managing the trade of plants but a whole range of products, so we need to think big if we are to understand our relationship with biosecurity and take responsibility for our actions. For example, wood is typically used as packing for construction materials, so it is no use limiting our attention to agricultural or horticultural trades: if landscape architects are specifying granite or slate from India and China (for example), we need to know that these imports could have unexpected implications.

Horizon scanning for plant health 

  • The UK has five core elements to its plant health and biosecurity strategy: Prediction (through the Internation Plant Sentinel Network), Prevention (through targeted inspections and restrictions), Protection (by aerial and ground surveillance), Preparation (with contingency plans and research) and Partnering by sharing information and responsibilities.
  • The number of pests on the Risk Register are increasing over time (see below) and these are predominantly insects.

The Defra Risk Register shows that plant health risks are increasing

  • Pathogens are steadily moving polewards (Bebber 2014)
  • We can’t predict something’s impact if you don’t know (or if you don’t want to know) what it is: as Michael Jeger pointed out, Phytopthera ramorum was new to science when its effects were first seen, so landscape architects need to stay engaged and be prepared to change our specifications quickly if need be.
  • Defra ministers are asking to maintain or improve animal and plant security in new trade deals (Nicola Spence).
  • UK agencies have been working on the EU Plant Health Regulations (2016/2031) for the past three years; this deals specifically with identifying high risk trades, providing mechanisms for exemptions and faster acting interventions.

Social themes

  • Recent sustainability campaigns have had measurable impacts in areas such as zero waste, biodiversity, sustainable transport, and physical activity. However, plant health is more complex than waste management, easier to manage than biodiversity, less contentious than climate change and less infrastructure bound than transport (Rehema White). This feels like an area that presents significant opportunities for the Landscape Institute to be involved in the debate and develop guidance.
  • Julie Urquhart presented a cultural theory model to understand the gap between attitudes and behaviour, identifying large gaps in research, such as the emotional and cultural connections, children in nature, community, shifting social norms. This is a particularly interesting way to assess the ways we understand plant health and points to how landscape architects can be the agents of this change- we will need to develop different strategies to work with the different worldviews.

A cultural theory interpretation of the responses to plant health issues

  • One of the striking findings was that our perceptions of risk and the resilience of natural systems are influenced by how people think pests and pathogens arrive in the UK (Julie Urquhart)


  • There are trade offs between strategies to manage invasive species and we need to understand these better to develop plant health strategies (Morag McPherson). For example, when is a precautionary approach effective and when is it better to rely on reactive control?
  • There is a relationship between humans and plant health- citrus growers in Florida have seen that anywhere with more than 1 person per acre resulted in 70-100% loss of citrus trees (Peter McClure).
  • The pace of plant health risk varies: emergence doesn’t specify a timescale, for example, Xylella fastidiosa arrived in Italy after World War II but has only recently started to have a devastating impact on olives and may yet have similar implications for cherries & plums, citrus fruit and vines. We have swords over our heads, some of which we can see, some of which we can’t, and we don’t know when they will fall or why (Michael Jeger).


  • Investment in biosecurity needs to come from public sector: because there are few opportunities for profit (such as long-term drug sales), the private sector is not interested (John Beddington)
  • Nicola Spence discussed Defra’s approach to plant health in terms of movement and borders, pointing out how difficult it is to manage biosecurity without discussing it in terms of trade and politics, especially as material is imported by agents who don’t deal in plants. For example, mangoes from India were banned recently due to plant health risks, so Fera inspectors went to India to train teams in post production techniques, enabling trade to be reopened within eight months. Is there the political will in Brexit Britain to continue to invest in this kind of offshoring of responsibility and proactive international action?
  • Brexit was discussed by Robert Black and to an extent was the elephant in the room: the government’s strategy of not wanting to show its hand in the Brexit negotiations means that whatever guarantees are in place (whether it’s the continuation of Pillar One of the CAP or APHA Research) do not hold beyond 2020.
  • The Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981, which provides protection for habitats and identifies invasive species, was derived from the Bern Convention of the Council of Europe (to which the UK will continue to be a signatory after Brexit), but there remain many uncertainties as the Single Market drove the Plant Health Directive. At the time of the conference, a big question was even whether the Great Repeal Bill would address Directives (it now looks like they will be adopted)
  • Brexit presents an opportunity for managing plant health in the UK in that there is a new potential to erect effective border controls. New Zealand has made significant steps to improving plant health through its Better Border Biosecurity programme (Jessica Dohmen-Vereijssen), focussing on pre-emptive biocontrol. Similarly, Australia has made significant investments to migrate the risk off-shore and to keep Australia pest-free and to generate strong public support for biosecurity issues, which are seen as necessary and affordable (David Nehl).

The complexity of international horticultural trade exacerbates the direct and indirect impacts of climate change

  • Regardless of one’s political outlook, Fera was emphatic that trade pathways present the biggest risks to the movement of plant pests and pathogens and there are few meaningful indications that the government will prioritise plant health over trade. How do we trade off the need to trade internationally with the need to protect our islands’ ecosystems? Plant health and biosecurity operate at an international scale and need proactive international answers. The US and BRICS nations are major sources of non compliant wood packaging (a host for Asian Long Horned beetle and others) for the UK, so if trade increases with these nations post-Brexit, how will we ensure that we manage biosecurity? A similarly awkward question is the strong movement in the UK which argues that foreign aid budget should be decreased. Does this include training of foreign agencies to identify and manage pests, such as the initiative cited above in India?

BRICS countries and the USA are major sources of non-compliant packaging. How do we manage these risks if we trade less with the EU post Brexit?