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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 19 November 2019

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, International Year of Plant Health 2020, Fisheries Negotiations, Committee Announcement (Education and Skills Committee), Business Motion, Decision Time, Road Safety Week 2019


International Year of Plant Health 2020

The next item of business is a statement by Mairi Gougeon, on the international year of plant health 2020.


I am delighted to have the opportunity to set out our plans to mark and celebrate the international year of plant health in 2020. This initiative of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization aims to protect plants globally and is described as

“a once in a lifetime opportunity to raise global awareness on how protecting plant health can help end hunger, reduce poverty, protect the environment, and boost economic development.”

As the Minister for Rural Affairs and the Natural Environment, with responsibility for plant health, I am determined that Scotland will play its part and seize this opportunity.

Many members will probably not have given plant health much thought, and I am pretty sure that it does not come up very often on the doorstep, but it is critical to our very existence, a fundamental building block of our economy and crucial for the environment and for biodiversity. Quite simply, plant health matters.

In Scotland, healthy plants are estimated to be worth around £19.2 billion to the rural economy every year. They help to make Scotland the country that we all know and love, and they underpin tourism, scientific study, medicine and leisure and recreational activities, as well as communities’ sense of place and cohesion and people’s physical and mental health and wellbeing.

I cannot imagine a Scotland in autumn without its woodland coat of many colours, without the white sweep of blackthorn blossom and hills of purple heather in spring, or without the sharp, sweet taste of locally grown raspberries and strawberries in summer.

Freedom of movement of goods and people undoubtedly brings huge benefits to Scotland, but globalisation increases the risk of new pests and diseases reaching us. Plant health threats can travel hidden in nursery plants and the compost that they grow in, in plant products, packaging, wood and vehicles, and in holidaymakers’ luggage—even in the soil carried on our shoes.

There are already more than 1,000 pests and diseases threatening the health of plants in the United Kingdom across forestry, crops and the natural environment, and the number of threats continues to increase due to climate change and trade globalisation. For example, the common ash tree is under real threat from Chalara fraxinea—ash dieback—a fungus that is fatal to the species and which has already decimated populations in England. It is predicted to kill 95 to 99 per cent of ash trees in the UK, with an estimated cost to the UK of £15 billion in operational costs and lost benefits such as water and air purification and carbon sequestration. The total cost is 50 times larger than the annual value of trade in live plants to and from the UK, but the biggest cost is said to be the lost benefits to society.

We have legislation in place to prevent the movement of ash trees, plants and seeds, which will help to slow the spread of the fungus to uninfected areas. In 2018, we introduced a Chalara action plan, which was agreed with stakeholders and which sets out our key priorities around research, surveillance and monitoring, prophylactic and reactive measures and communications to best minimise the impacts of the disease. However, there is a glimmer of hope on the horizon, with the news just yesterday that a study has identified the genes that give trees resistance to the disease. Although that will not help the trees that are currently affected, it could help future populations.

Likewise, there is a real threat of an outbreak of the bacterium Xylella, which has more than 560 identified host species and is decimating crops in parts of Europe. If it arrives in Scotland, it will have a devastating impact on our trade in plants and trees and our wider environment, creating economic loss in the process.

Only last week here in Scotland, experts were advising that the potato cyst nematode is an on-going concern, due to its longevity in the soil once introduced. That pathogen could potentially wipe out our seed potato industry by 2025 if the current rate of land lost to it continues. We test all soils that are being used to produce seed potatoes for the pathogen, but we need to work collaboratively with industry and researchers to find a sustainable solution to protect the industry.

We must continue to invest in science, research, monitoring and testing, but we must all play our part in minimising and mitigating the risks to plant health, not least as part of our fight against climate change. We simply cannot afford to do nothing, not least because plants and trees are our greatest allies in the fight against climate change. As nature’s barometers, they tell us so much about the changing temperatures across the world, including in Scotland, and will help us adapt to climate change and to mitigate it by sequestering and storing greenhouse gases. Scotland’s forests are a significant carbon sink, absorbing around 9.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year. That is why we are committed to planting 24 million trees this year.

That is not all that we are doing. In 2016, we published “The Scottish Plant Health Strategy”, which set out our approach to protecting plants across Scotland and improving biosecurity. In 2017, the Scottish Government appointed the first ever Scottish chief plant health officer to provide strategic leadership across all plant health sectors. In 2018, we established a new virtual plant health centre for Scotland, to co-ordinate activity across sectors, to monitor plant diseases and to help stakeholders understand how to improve their plant health capabilities.

The centre has already strengthened our contingency plans against key threats such as the bacterium Xylella and has informed us on the impact to agriculture from the withdrawal of the pesticide metaldehyde. This spring, we published a new forestry strategy for Scotland, setting out a 50-year vision for Scotland’s forests and woodlands with a 10-year action framework to continue to grow and protect our trees, woods and forests.

Every year, the Scottish Government provides core funding of £47 million to Scotland’s research institutes and invests £7 million in plant health research to fill evidence gaps across all sectors. Our world-leading plant scientists such as those at the James Hutton Institute have long benefited from international research funding and collaborations that have contributed to plant health solutions. We will use the international year of plant health to showcase our role as part of a vibrant international research community.

Of course, we also enter 2020 with huge uncertainty about the impact of Brexit on that international activity. We face the loss of scientists who have come to work and live in Scotland, many of whom I have met in recent months. We can never say often enough that they are welcome here and that we want them to stay. We know that Brexit has diminished the enthusiasm of others to collaborate with Scottish institutions on research projects and funding applications. The loss of being part of one of the world’s very best scientific communities, with free and ready access to up-to-date science and evidence, and protections through European Union-wide regulations and standards, threatens to compromise our ability to protect Scotland’s plants and trees. The Government is determined to keep pace with EU standards and regulations and will do all that it can to prevent our high standards from being compromised by trade deals designed for a race to the bottom by future UK Governments.

We will not allow the strides that have been made in building resilience against plant health threats to be undone. Instead, we will resolve to use the international year of plant health as a platform upon which to build. We plan to engage with industry, scientists, other organisations and the public, particularly children and young people. It is vital that we educate and enthuse children and young people about the role that plants have to play in securing their future and that we inspire their interest and curiosity, while encouraging behaviours that we want them to take into work and life in adulthood. That would provide a lasting legacy for the international year of plant health in Scotland.

Forestry and Land Scotland and the National Trust for Scotland host children’s bug hunts throughout the year at a range of venues, and we will participate in some of Scotland’s science festivals with plant-themed activities. Every person can make a difference, even with small changes and actions. That is the message that we will be promoting through the international year of plant health.

The Scottish Government and its partners will spend more time showing the public, especially the nation’s gardeners, how they can help protect Scotland’s biosecurity. We will therefore join forces with the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh to help celebrate its 350th year in 2020, with a year-long biosecurity exhibition in the John Hope gateway. The Scottish Government will host a plant health conference in March, and there will be a series of industry round-table events to explore current and emerging threats to plant health.

I have provided just a snapshot of some of the activities that are currently being planned to celebrate and mark the international year of plant health. I am hopeful that there will be activity in the Parliament and activity that all members can engage with. I am happy to update Parliament with more detail of the planned programme as it develops.

I hope that we can agree today that ensuring that Scotland is fully involved in the international year of plant health is not just a good use of our time and energy, but an essential one. It will allow us to share our often world-leading research and science in the area. With the threats to plant health increasing, and given that the impacts of an outbreak are potentially devastating, our involvement will allow us to spread the message to safeguard our plants, and it will enable us to raise awareness and understanding of the critical role that plants and trees play in our everyday life, not least in tackling climate change.

I look forward to working with members across the Parliament to make our programme for the international year of plant health a success.

I thank the minister for early sight of her statement, and I welcome the opportunity that we all have in 2020 to celebrate the international year of plant health, and to raise awareness of the importance of plant health to the economy and, indeed, to the natural environment and the biodiversity of Scotland—particularly now, when the “State of Nature 2019” report says that, of the 6,413 species found in Scotland, 11 per cent are currently threatened with extinction, which highlights the fact that Scotland’s wildlife has declined substantially in recent decades.

Data is important, but I question the priority that the Government places on research and data collection, given that last year Ellen Wilson, who is the chair of the Scottish biodiversity information forum, urged the Scottish Government

“to establish integrated local and national structures for collecting, analysing and sharing biological data to inform decision making processes to benefit biodiversity.”

As we heard at the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee in September, there remain concerns over the lack of funding. A year on from her plea in 2018, Ellen Wilson stated:

“We have heard brilliant words that are often not backed up with sufficient sustainable funding that would take the pressure off the network.”—[Official Report, Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee, 17 September 2019; c 5.]

Can the minister give us an assurance that the statement that we have just heard is not just about “brilliant words”, but ensures that we have the funding and a national data collection structure in place so that we will have accurate data available in order to make the best interventions to safeguard plant health and, in turn, tackle our biodiversity emergency?

Finlay Carson is right that we are in a biodiversity emergency. I do not think that I need to explain to anybody in the chamber just what an emergency we are in and the situation that we face. As well as the “State of Nature 2019” report, we had the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services report earlier this year that stated that around a million species are expected to become extinct if we do not take action now to tackle climate change and biodiversity.

The two are, of course, intrinsically linked. That is why we put such emphasis on tackling invasive non-native species—I note that I took a question from Finlay Carson on invasive non-native species in portfolio questions a couple of weeks ago. As he has said, the research element is vital—I was at Forest Research recently to hear about the work that it does. The work that is done by the Plant Health Centre and others, which I talked about in my statement today, is vital. We are leading the way with that work, which brings together the scientific community to look at our research needs, so that we can prioritise and continue to be the world leader that I believe we are.

I welcome the UN FAO ambition and the international year of plant health. I agree with the minister that those are significant issues, here and abroad, and that protection of our plant health needs resilience, which is also imperative in securing the right to food for all and much more. In our increasingly globalised world, what measures is the Government taking to improve action on biosecurity across all departments and levels of Government?

The limiting of our co-operative research and science projects by Brexit would be a terrible loss. Will the minister give a bit more detail about the arrangements to address the potential gap in funding and research placements, specifically with regard to the long-term vision that is important with regard to ecological issues?

Does the minister think that there is also a need to examine further the provenance of our native species and work to develop resilient strains of native seeds in the face of disease and climate change? How is the Government supporting farmers and crofters to adopt best-practice methods of nature-friendly farming, and will that be a consideration in forthcoming agriculture legislation?

There were quite a few questions there. I will try to address as many of them as I can and, if I do not address them all, I will commit to getting back to Claudia Beamish on the ones that I miss.

Because there is still so much that is unknown about Brexit, one commitment that I will give is that we still fully intend to keep pace with what is happening in the EU. We want to continue to have some of the highest standards in the world. That can be seen with our seed potatoes, which are in demand across the world because of their high health status, which is vital.

On support for farmers and crofters, I note that Claudia Beamish mentioned nature-friendly farming. Our initiatives, including the climate change champions initiative—Lynn and Sandra from Lynbreck Croft are in that group—are promoting best practice. We want to spread the word about that as much as possible. A great deal of important work is going on around climate change and agriculture at the moment through things such as Farming for a Better Climate and our soil regenerative agriculture programme. We want to get the message out to as many farmers and crofters as we can about what is possible and the work that is under way.

Again, I am sorry if I have missed any points, but I will get back to Claudia Beamish on them.

I welcome the minister’s statement. As a keen gardener, I am aware of the importance of plant health to biosecurity, and of the need for all of us to garden more sustainably. How can we ensure that gardeners are getting consistent and reliable advice, and that they play their part to promote plant health and secure practice?

I am well aware that Gail Ross is a keen gardener. She has experience that could be well shared with us all.

During the international year of plant health, our chief plant health officer’s team and the Plant Health Centre will be engaging with gardeners and the general public to raise awareness of biosecurity issues and the best practice that can be followed. Details on that will appear on the chief plant health officer’s web pages soon. Last year, we worked with the BBC’s “Beechgrove Garden” to highlight biosecurity issues to a wide audience.

We regularly liaise with stakeholders about biosecurity guidance and advice issues. We always advise gardeners to source plants from a reputable local trader that can advise where its plants have been sourced from, and we actively promote the European and Mediterranean Plant Protection Organization’s “Don’t risk it” campaign, which highlights the danger of bringing home plants from overseas trips.

I cannot emphasise enough exactly how important the issue is, especially with regard to diseases that I mentioned in my statement, including Xylella, and the impact that they are having across Europe, particularly in Italy, where they have completely decimated olive tree plantations. We need to do absolutely everything that we can to prevent those diseases from reaching our shores.

The minister has mentioned the excellent work of the James Hutton Institute. Given the loss of international collaborations and funding after Brexit and the urgent need for a climate emergency budget in Scotland, what consideration is being given to restoring the funding support to the James Hutton Institute?

We have to see how we can best work with all our research institutes. We want to continue to support them and the valuable work that they do. A lot of the work that I mentioned in my statement would not have been possible without the research that those important bodies undertake, and they are a key part of the work of the Plant Health Centre. Therefore, we have to see how we can continue to support them.

I want to press the minister on that point. With Brexit, we face the loss of expert scientists who have come to work here. The minister said that that threatens to compromise our ability to protect Scotland’s plants and trees. How exactly does she plan to tackle that problem?

Mike Rumbles is absolutely right. Without knowing exactly what the outcome of Brexit will be, what funding opportunities will exist as a result of that, and whether we will still be able to play a role in the likes of horizon 2020, which has been absolutely vital for our research communities, it is hard to know exactly what support there will be. That is why we continue to press the United Kingdom Government for information on that. Obviously, we are in a general election campaign, and we do not know what the outcome of that will be. That continues the uncertainty.

As I outlined in my response to Mark Ruskell’s question, I absolutely recognise the importance of our research institutions and the valuable work that they do. That is why we have a close relationship with them. We will continue to work with them to see how we can maintain that and continue to fund them.

The minister will be aware of the threat that is posed to oak trees from the oak processionary moth. Have there been any instances of the oak processionary moth in Scotland? How concerned is the Government about that threat?

Oak processionary moths are a particular risk, but they are more of an animal and plant health risk because of the serious skin irritations and allergic reactions that they can cause.

Scotland is part of the United Kingdom oak processionary moth protected zone. In July this year, following the introduction of oak processionary moth-infested trees into England, the Scottish Government further strengthened protection by introducing emergency measures, which have restricted the movement of larger oak trees that are deemed to be at the highest risk of OPMs. Similar legislation was introduced throughout the UK.

Scottish Government officials are working with other parts of the UK to share intelligence on the scale and distribution of trees that have been imported into the UK, and our inspectors are investigating all Scottish sites in which suspect trees have been planted since September 2018.

I can confirm to Angus MacDonald that Scotland has had six positive findings, that the infested trees have been destroyed, and that Scottish Government inspectors have visited 157 sites in total to inspect for oak processionary moths. As a precautionary measure, pheromone traps were deployed at each of the positive sites. However, all of those tested negative for OPM.

The Scotland and north of England high-grade seed potato industry is worth £100 million to the British economy. Just two of the top 15 Scottish varieties of seed potatoes that are currently grown are resistant to the Globodera pallida species of potato cyst nematode. What is the Scottish Government doing to support Scotland’s leading agricultural research units, in particular the Soil Association Scotland led rural innovation support service, which is discussing the latest research on PCN? Will the minister commit to exploring successful projects in Germany, where cases of PCN have been greatly reduced? That could be of huge benefit to the Scottish seed potato industry.

Absolutely. I am grateful to the member for that question, because, as I highlighted in my response to Claudia Beamish, that is a valuable and important sector to Scotland. That is why maintaining the high health status of our seed potatoes is vital.

The news about potato cyst nematodes will have reached the news this week. In line with EU directives, Scottish Government scientists test all fields that are used for seed-potato production for the presence of cyst nematodes in the soil. Only fields that test clear for PCN can be used for seed potato production.

Our research partners, the James Hutton Institute and Scotland’s Rural College, undertake research on control strategies, including breeding for resistance to nematodes. Scotland’s Plant Health Centre is working with stakeholders to determine why the problem is increasing and to identify likely future scenarios, to inform the industry. Through the rural innovation support service, a consortium is working to develop innovative control strategies to safeguard the long-term future of our potato industry. Also, as part of the international year of plant health, one ministerial round-table event with industry will focus on the threat to Scotland from nematode pests, including PCN.

I was not aware of the strategies that are being used in Germany, which Rachael Hamilton raised; of course, if there are strategies being put in place in other countries, we have to look at them and see whether we can learn from them.

We do not take the threats lightly. Work is continuing in order that we can tackle these problems.

This summer, I joined members of Markinch Heritage Group and volunteers from the Fife Coast & Countryside Trust to help to tackle Himalayan balsam. The minister is aware of the devastating effect on local biodiversity that invasive species can have, so will she set out how we can increase awareness among local groups and the wider public of such species? Will she join me in commending groups such as Markinch Heritage Group in my constituency that help to manage the biodiversity of our countryside?

I absolutely commend those groups. Jenny Gilruth raises an extremely important point about invasive non-native species which, as I said in my response to Finlay Carson, are one of the biggest threats to our biodiversity. We get more of a sense of the scale of the problem when we look at its financial impact. I think that I mentioned this in portfolio questions a couple of weeks ago, but it is worth repeating that invasive species cost Scotland in the region of £250 million a year. The involvement of communities and local groups is vital if we are to get on top of the problem and tackle it.

I visited the Scottish invasive species initiative, which is a four-year project, to see some of the work that it does on the River South Esk in my constituency. Figures from that project show that 342 volunteers have taken part, 736km of giant hogweed has been treated and 195 volunteers have helped to monitor mink rafts. Community involvement and volunteer work are vital there, too, and I commend the groups and volunteers in Jenny Gilruth’s constituency, my constituency and across Scotland for the work that they do. We depend on them to be the eyes and ears to monitor invasive species spread in their local communities.

The member is right to ask what more we can do to make more people aware of the issue. Scottish Natural Heritage leads on tackling invasive non-native species such as Himalayan balsam, and it will work with the plant health centre to raise awareness of the issue across networks and among groups, and to encourage more people to get involved, in order to minimise the threat to our native plants. I will give more thought to that as we go into international year for plant health, and I will explore what more can be done with our lead agencies in that regard.

How is the Government working with farmers and crofters to secure a reduction in reliance on pesticides and artificial fertilisers, given that pollution and agricultural intensification are identified as key drivers in the nature emergency and that fertilisers also contribute to climate change? What support and education on those issues is being made available to local communities that are involved in gardening and the management of our urban environment to ensure plant health and biodiversity?

On what we are doing to encourage a reduction in the use of pesticides, the Scottish Government considers that pesticides should be authorised where the available scientific evidence shows that they do not pose an unacceptable risk to human health, animals and the environment. The Scottish Government promotes a targeted approach to pesticide use. Integrated pest management, which enables farmers to protect their crops using a full range of measures, with pesticides used as sparingly as possible, is already promoted through strategies such as the pesticides national action plan. We will continue to work with land managers to further reduce reliance on pesticides, as was outlined recently in our programme for government.

I think that there was another part to that question, which I did not quite pick up, but I will contact the member with that information.

Will the minister expand on what role the first ever Scottish chief plant health officer will play?

The fact that we recently created that new role shows the important value that we place on plant health, as does the fact that we established the virtual plant health centre. As I outlined in a previous response, the plant health centre brings together all key stakeholders and researchers, allowing us to be at the forefront of tackling plant health issues.

Given the Scottish Government’s failure to forward plan, will the minister confirm that there is a shortage of young trees in nurseries to achieve our target of 12,000 hectares of new forestry planting next year? Are we therefore in danger of importing disease from young trees from abroad?

This seems to be becoming a habit, but I say that it is a bit rich of Peter Chapman to talk about a lack of forward planning. It is hard to forward plan when the UK Administration will not work with us or share information. Trust me, if we were given all that information, it would be easier to plan and to answer such questions.

We tend to think of woodlands, forests and agriculture as being mainly rural issues. However, does the minister think that urban settings have any part to play in maintaining and developing the health and the number of trees and plants?

I absolutely agree with that. Urban trees are vital for mitigating the effects of climate change. They also have aesthetic qualities and, because of that, they are a prominent feature in urban developments.

The plant health centre is commissioning a biosecurity project in 2020 that will address the risks resulting from imported rather than domestically produced trees being planted in those developments. The project outputs will help us to work with councils and landscapers to ensure that urban planting continues, but with fewer biosecurity risks.

When it comes to urban planning and what we are doing in urban environments, we support projects through the community growing fund. I visited a project that North Edinburgh Arts set up after successfully applying for that funding. In addition, the Central Scotland Green Network Trust covers 3.6 million people and 86 per cent of Scotland’s most deprived areas. It is tackling derelict land and promoting active travel.

We recognise the importance of tree planting, planting hedges and pollinator corridors in our urban areas, and we are determined to continue that work.