Fine tuning policies and collaborations can strengthen animal and plant pathogen research, says Wyn Grant.

Wyn Grant

In the 21st century, one of the potential consequences of climate change and free global trade is that animal and plant disease may pose increasing threats to our food supplies.

It’s important to understand the biology of the pathogens and pests involved, but it’s equally important to fully consider the human dimension, and the part that people and their behaviour play. That has been the basis of the Rural Economy and Land Use (Relu) Programme’s research on animal and plant disease, culminating in their latest briefing paper “Growing concerns: animal and plant disease policy for the 21st century (PDF)” .

Past policies

Even a cursory examination of government policy on disease reveals how unsystematic our present approach seems to be. Its origins are rooted in a different historical landscape and policy has grown up in a way that often seems illogical today.

One obvious example is the way in which animal disease is categorised as ‘exotic’ or ‘endemic’ and how this determines the political response. Public money and effort go into addressing -exotic- diseases such foot-and-mouth disease, while persistent infections such as Johne’s disease and infectious bovine rhinotracheitis are regarded as industry problems, attracting no compensation for farmers and no particular efforts to eliminate them.

Yet these endemic diseases are impacting significantly on food production, farmers’ profits and animal welfare. Research carried out by a Relu team at Warwick (PDF) has concluded that making more information on disease status and history available to livestock buyers could help to address this. For example, knowledge of the disease risks within the herd would have an effect on prices, giving the low-risk animal a higher value, and providing more incentive for farmers to eliminate disease.

The new Animal and Health Welfare Board for England needs to apply a systematic framework for risk and cost sharing that has the backing of stakeholders. At the moment, anomalies persist not only within the categorisation of animal disease, but between animal and plant disease.  These two factors still seem to be addressed within self-contained silos and carry very different consequences for farmers. There are surely many lessons, not only on cost and responsibility, but on other aspects such as disease risk management, that could be applied more widely between the animal and plant sciences.

All the right friends

One of the major findings of the Relu programme is how involvement of stakeholders can strengthen research and it can also make implementation of policy more effective.

The UK Government’s approach to the appearance of bluetongue in Britain in 2007 provides a good example of this. By working closely with the farming community they developed a control strategy, and a communications campaign implemented with help from veterinary and industry bodies raised awareness of the disease and the actions that needed to be taken.

But we really need an even wider engagement with society on these issues, even if it may sometimes make us feel uneasy. The 38 Degrees organisation for example, has an approach that some might regard as provocative on arguments such as bovine TB and the culling of badgers, but it does encourage involvement beyond the obvious groups.

There are new disease threats to our food all the time and the Relu report calls for a fresh approach from Government. Food is a concern for everyone and we should all be taking an interest in UK and world food security as price rise and supply become less secure.

About Wyn Grant

Wyn Grant is a graduate of the universities of Leicester, Strathclyde and Exeter. He joined Warwick University in 1971 and was chair of the Department of Politics and International Studies from 1990 to 1997.  In recent years he has been actively involved in research projects with members of the Department of Life Sciences at Warwick where he also teaches.  He is vice-president for Europe and Africa of the International Political Science Association.

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