Issue 37

Plant Health Heroes – keeping UK plants healthy

Across the world pests have a devastating impact on plants causing economic, social and environmental damage. In the UK the health of plants is safeguarded by an army of people, the plant health service. They work to prevent new pests from entering the country keeping plants free from additional harm.

Plants produce 98% of the oxygen we breathe, make up 80% of the food we eat and support over half a million jobs in the UK. However, plants are under continuous threat from quarantine pests*. Worldwide plant pests and diseases cause the loss of up to 40% of food crops annually. To feed a growing population, the health of plants must be preserved, not only must losses be avoided but yields need to be enhanced. It is estimated that agricultural production will need to increase by 60% by 2050 to feed everyone.

The UK faces threats from hundreds of pests such the Colorado potato beetle which can decimate potato crops, the Emerald Ash Borer which is killing Ash trees in America and Xylella, bacteria which have caused devastation in the olive growing regions of Italy.

In the UK control of our most recent pest outbreaks such as the Oak Processionary Moth and Tomato Brown Rugose Fruit Virus has relied on co-operation between an army of individuals which form the plant health service. These include plant health and seed inspectors who find pests, diagnostians at Fera that identify them, scientific advisors who provide technical advice on the organism and policy makers that decide whether new laws are needed against the pest.

In the interviews below a member of each of these groups explains a little bit about their contribution to keeping UK plants healthy.

one person standing in the snow

Plant Health and Seed Inspector (PHSI) (Laura Chapman)

*A quarantine pest is a bacterium, fungi, insect, mite, nematode, parasitic plant, virus or weed which is absent from all or part of a country but which would cause damage if it spread into areas where it doesn’t occur at the moment. To prevent quarantine pests causing damage, plant health authorities try to stop them spreading. Pest will be referred to in the remainder of the article.

Describe your job.

My role is to identify and control pests, to prevent their introduction and spread within the UK.

How did you get your job?

I have always enjoyed being outside and knew that I didn’t want a 9 to 5 office job. So I went to the University of Nottingham to study Agricultural Science. My friend who already worked for the animal and plant health agency (APHA) recommended I apply for the PHSI and my degree provided me with the background I needed. Working at a cattle station in Australia provided me with experience of lone working, decision making and planning.

What is your favourite part of your job?

The role is so varied, I am constantly learning new things, so I never get bored! I am also currently undertaking a Post Graduate Certificate in Plant Health and Biosecurity at Harper Adams University.

Describe an average day.

I visit plant nurseries, garden centres, growers and other agricultural businesses checking their plants for pests. If I find a pest I collect and send a sample off to the diagnosticians, disinfect my tools/boots/hands afterwards so I don’t spread the pest and stop the infected plants being moved. Once the diagnostician has identified the pest I may need to ask the grower to destroy their plants to prevent the pest spreading elsewhere.

What skills do you need for your job?

I have to be adaptable to change, organised and a confident communicator.

wheat field

Adam Bryning in a lab

Diagnostician (Adam Bryning)

Describe your job.

I’m like a bacteria detective working out what’s causing the symptoms seen on plants. I use a range of methods to isolate and identify the bacteria from the plant and then inform the customer (the PHSI / farmers / nurseries / landscapers), what the problem is.

Did you always want to do your job?

After I finished my degree I knew I didn’t want a job in research and was more attracted to applied science roles. Fera was just up the road from where I studied so I applied for an Assistant Diagnostician post. I didn’t know this job existed until I applied, as plant health or plant pathology wasn’t really taught at school or university.

What has been your career highlight?

I went to San Francisco as part of a project which aims to help the UK prepare for an outbreak of the devastating bacterial pathogen Xylella fastidiosa. The trip included meeting researchers and field visits.

What is your favourite pest?

Xanthomonas hortorum pathovar pelargonii (bacterial blight) which is straightforward to isolate and grow in the laboratory. It’s a bacteria that attacks geranium flowers and causes really distinctive sectored wilt on the leaves, which you can see in the picture below. As with most bacterial diseases there isn’t really a treatment for curing the plants, so in this case our general advice would be to remove infected plants so the pathogen doesn’t spread disease to others.

plant with bacterial disease

Any advice for someone wanting to get into this as a career?

Say yes! I interviewed for an assistant scientist post and was instead offered a short term post. I kept saying yes to helping with different teams and learning new skills and different microbiological and molecular methods,

6 years later I’m still here!

Scientific advisor (Laura Stevens)

What do you love about plants?

Plants have to adapt to their environments as they cannot just get up and move. They generally cope with whatever nature throws at them, whilst producing the oxygen necessary for life on our planet.

Describe your job.

My role involves using my scientific training to provide advice on issues affecting plant health. For example, if a new pest is detected in England and Wales, my team provides advice on how to either eradicate, contain or minimise the impact that the pest could have in the UK. Recently for findings of Tomato Brown Rugose Fruit Virus my team advised on how to stop the virus spreading to other glasshouses, by recommending hygiene practices and how to deal with infected plants.

Did you always want to do your job?

No, I had no idea that this job existed, but I have always loved science, particularly biology and after completing my PhD I knew that I wanted to put my scientific training to use in real-world applications.

Any advice for someone wanting to get into this as a career?

Get as much experience as possible, as it could lead to previously unimagined career opportunities. Many people working in plant health are happy to share their knowledge so you could contact them to ask about work shadowing days.

Policy maker (Matthew Casey)

Describe your job and your favourite part of it

Plant health laws are in place to protect UK plants from pests, whilst enabling plants to be moved into and out of the UK. My role is to ensure that changes to the laws are applied correctly, but that the burden on businesses (e.g., plant nurseries) is minimised.

I do this by meeting with the PHSI, lawyers, businesses and scientific advisors.

My favourite part is making policy digestible, so that we can all understand it and explaining to the public the purpose of the laws and why they matter

How did you get into your job?

I did a BSc in Plant Science and then a PhD in Plant Molecular Biology, in my final year I applied for the Civil Service Fast Stream (their graduate scheme). I didn’t make the final cut for the scheme, but was offered a job as a result of applying.

Did you always want to do your job?

I have always wanted to work in something that helps plants, animals and the wider environment, although I didn’t have a specific job in mind.

Any advice for someone wanting to get into this as a career?

Get a good grounding in biology, problem solving and communicating. Having technical knowledge is great, but equally important is being able to share that knowledge so other people can understand it.

hand inspecting plant

As the interviews above have shown protecting plant health in the UK is essential work which requires an army of individuals from the UK plant health service as well as collaboration with other countries, academia, industry and the general public. It also offers plenty of career opportunities to individuals with a wide range of personalities, interests and skills, from those that love working outdoors, to people that like team working or others that enjoy problem solving. If you are interested in pursuing a job in plant health or want to find out more, further information can be found in the links below:

Asset 4

Dr Rachel Yale
Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs

Explore other articles