July 2, 2015, by Judith Tsouvalis

Ash dieback (Chalara), free trade, and the technocracy of biosecurity

This is a post by Judith Tsouvalis, one of the research fellows on the Making Science Public team.

Dead Trees

In March 2012, tree and plant health became a matter of national concern in Britain following the discovery of an East Asian fungus called Hymenoscyphus fraxineus at a nursery in Buckinghamshire, England. The ash saplings infected by the pathogen had been imported from a nursery in the Netherlands. On the continent, ash dieback or Chalara, which is caused by Hymenoscyphus fraxineus, has decimated European ash (Fraxinus excelsior) populations for over two decades, and in the UK is expected to lead to the extinction or decline of over 50 species associated with this native tree. In spite of this, the British Government was unprepared for the arrival of ash dieback, and even less for the media reaction and high level of public concern it caused.

Worldwide, countless tree and plant species are under threat from non-native pathogens and pests. While native, locally adapted plant communities co- evolve with a multitude of pathogenic microorganisms, viruses and viroids over centuries and generally suffer few ill-effects, encounters with new ones often prove fatal. In Britain, numerous bioinvasions have preceded ash dieback. Examples include Ophiostoma novo-ulmi, the pathogen that caused the second Dutch elm epidemic and killed more than 28 million mature elm trees between 1970 and 1990 and around 20 million young elm trees since; Phytophthora disease of alder, imported on nursery stock in the 1990s and fatal to native riparian alders; Phytophthora ramorum or sudden oak death, linked to an East Asian pathogen brought to the UK on infected nursery stock from Europe in the 1990s and now widespread in Cornwall; red band needle blight, imported on infected nursery stock in 1997 and fatal to Corsican pine; and horse chestnut bleeding canker, a pathogen of Indian origin imported on nursery stock in the 1990s and now spreading rapidly, causing fatalities and dieback among horse chestnut trees (Brasier, 2008, 796-797).

Tree lovers and gardening enthusiasts will have noticed that not all is well with our trees and plants. In this blog post I briefly consider three issues that the arrival of Hymenoscyphus fraxineus has brought into stark relief: the decline of scientific expertise in plant pathology; the link between market liberalisation, free trade, and the rise in bioinvasions; and the shortcomings of the technocratic approach to biosecurity.

The decline of plant pathology expertise

One recommendation of the Tree Health and Plant Biosecurity Expert Taskforce (THPBET) set up in November 2012 was to ‘address key skills shortages’ as there had been‘an erosion of capability, in the UK and internationally, to deal with some aspects of tree and other plant pests and disease’ and a ‘decline in some of the underpinning natural and social science expertise essential to inform and implement policy’ (THPBET, 2013, p38). (THPBET, 2013:38).

This problem had been noted in two previous reports. In 2009, the Royal Society observed that funding for plant science and expertise in this area had declined. It urged Universities and funding bodies to work together to revive the teaching of subjects like agronomy, plant physiology, pathology and general botany, soil science, environmental microbiology, weed science and entomology. That this might prove difficult is made apparent in an audit of plant pathology undergraduate teaching and training commissioned by The British Society for Plant Pathology (BSPP) in 2012. Here it was found that many plant pathology research institutes and industrial R&D departments have been shut; that plant pathologists are an ageing and retiring HEI plant pathologists rarely replaced; that less than half of the 103 HEI that offer biology, agriculture, horticulture or forestry courses at BSc level provide plant pathology teaching; and that only half of these offer practical classes in plant pathology.

Whether and how many HEI will be able to retain their capacity to teach plant pathology in 5-10 years time remains uncertain, especially as ‘new departmental appointments and RAE/REF assessments are driven in part by the Impact Factor (IF) of scientific publications. The highly specialised nature of much plant pathology research means that many publications are of low IF’ (BSPP, 2012:2). Just as bioinvasions are globally on the rise, the expertise to understand and tackle them is being lost. But it gets worse.

Biosecurity, market liberalisation and free trade

Trade and global environmental change go hand in glove. With the magnitude of trade increasing rapidly and globally over the past half century in the context of climate change, there has been a corresponding rise in pest- and disease invasions including in the UK, where since the early 1990s ‘a stream of invasive pathogens potentially damaging to trees, natural ecosystems and horticulture’ has entered the country (Brassier, 2008:795). Trade in trees and plants relies on cheap labour (an important factor in how the horticultural trade operates), the transformation and circulation of vast volumes of matter, and complex regulatory mechanisms and governance structures that have been put in place to foster the free movement of goods, services, and people whilst combating the risks posed by bioinvasions (the latter is what the term ‘biosecurity’ means). Bioinvasions are therefore never simply ‘local’ events. Rather, they are local manifestations of global processes and networks of associations that operate at multiple spatial, temporal and socio-political scales. To these belong the technocratic measures put in place to avert them.

The technocratic approach to biosecurity

If we consider bioinvasions as a free market externality, it comes of little surprise that the biosecurity measures put in place to curtail the risks they pose have as their primary aim to uphold the free market ideology, especially in the European Union. In 2009, the European Commission (EC), in response to the rising number of harmful tree- and plant pests and diseases entering the European Union (EU), called for an evaluation of its plant health regime. This fully harmonised, quarantine legislative system was put in place in 1977 and its key instrument is Council Directive 2000/29/EC. The plant health regime lays down rules for plant production controls such as the inspection of plants at the place of their production, during the growing season, and post-harvest; official producer registration; and the issuing of plant passports for all plants and plant-related products and materials that circulate within the EU territory.

It is embedded in the broader international regulatory frameworks provided by the International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC) of the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, and the World Trade Organisation (WTO) Sanitary and Phytosanitary (plant health) Agreement. The prime objective of these and similar agreements, conventions, and codes is to foster free trade: in essence, Biosecurity balances enthusiasm for international trade with the need to protect against risks. Transparent and efficient controls in these sectors need not create unnecessary barriers to international trade; rather they facilitate it’ (Manzella and Vapnek, 2007:vii).

The EU plant health regime is described by the European Commission as ‘indispensable for protecting the health, economy and competitiveness of the EU plant production sector as well as for maintaining the Union’s open trade policy’ (EC, 2013). Indeed, the EU considers this regime as ‘unique in that it is an open regime: movements of plants and plant products into and within the Union are allowed on condition that specific restrictions and requirements are respected’ (EC, 2013, p1). But the 2009-2010 evaluation declared the 1977 phytosanitary measures to be inadequate for the prevention of bioinvasions. Although societal and political awareness had increased regarding the costs and impacts of inadequate protection against the risks posed by infectious diseases, it noted that there was an urgent need ‘to modernise the regime through more focus on prevention, better risk targeting (prioritisation) and more solidarity (moving from a Member State based to an EU approach for joint actions to tackle risks of EU significance)’ (European Commission Roadmap, 10/2012). It warned that ‘[T]he existing regulatory framework is […] unable to stop the increased influx of dangerous new pests caused by globalisation of trade’, and the ‘high volumes of imports from other continents … imply a high probability of future outbreaks of foreign pests’ (EC, 2013, p1). Only a modernised regime, it concluded, could thus ‘effectively address the plant health impacts of globalisation [and] mitigate the plant health impacts of climate change’ (ibid).


In his book the Risk Society, Ulrich Beck defined risk as a ‘systematic way of dealing with hazards and insecurities induced and introduced by modernization itself’ (Beck 1992:21). This begs the question as to whether risk (including the risk of bioinvasion), as a product of modernization can ever be alleviated through further strategies of modernization, like the measures proposed by the THPBET in 2013 to increase tree- and plant biosecurity. These include: the development of a UK Plant Health Risk Register; the appointment of a Chief Plant Health Officer who owns the register and provides strategic and tactical leadership for managing risks; the development of procedures for preparedness and contingency planning to predict, monitor and control the spread of pests and diseases; the review, simplification and strengthening of governance and legislation; the better use of international intelligence on biosecurity risks; the improvement of EU regulations to strengthen biosecurity; the steepening up of biosecurity measures at the UKs borders; the development of a modern, user friendly system for quick and intelligent access to biosecurity related information; and the tackling of skills shortages.

Policy and parliamentary discourse on biosecurity in Britain and elsewhere continues to frame it in the language of ‘risk’ and ‘threat’ and because concerns about affairs of state also loom large at this level of debate, biosecurity discourse is littered with references to ‘border controls’, ‘surveillance’, and protecting the ‘native’ from the ‘non-native’, ‘alien’, and ‘invasive’. This leads to a resource allocation aimed at fortifying boundaries (Nerlich et al. 2009), whereas what is urgently needed are new understandings of biosecurity that can do justice to the complex ecologies of practice that foster their occurrence. One project that has made thought-provoking steps in that direction is Biosecurity Borderlands, based at the University of Exeter. The question asked here is ‘how biosecurity interfaces with other concerns in a globalising world’, and it is argued that ‘Biosecurity needs to work within a complex landscape, where other knowledges, methods of implementation, interests, issues, definitions of life, come to influence exactly how biosecurity is defined and practised’. Taking this and other critiques of biosecurity more seriously will inevitably necessitate the opening-up of the Pandora’s box of free trade with its underpinning illusion that life in the Anthropocene can remain unchanged in the midst of the desire for perpetual economic growth for critical debate and reflection.


Beck, U. 1992. Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. London: Sage.

Brasier, C. (2008) The biosecurity threat to the UK and global environment from international trade in plants. Plant Pathology, 57, 792-808

Nerlich, B., Brown, B., and Wright, N., 2009. The ins and outs of biosecurity: Bird flu in East Anglia and the spatial representation of risk. Sociologica Ruralis, 49, 40, 344-359.


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