SCOTLAND is playing smart and tough in the war against disease of plants, with the launch of a new 'centre of excellence' to help meet the challenges of current and potential threats.

This joined up approach is expected to offer real benefits to farmers and foresters, in bringing together a range of expertise and model forecasting. It should be able to deliver real benefit in coping with current and any future threat that disease may pose to crops.

Plants play essential roles in our lives from recreation and tourism to the economics of timber and crop production – but the potential for harm from pests and diseases is ever present. So, this new, co-ordinated approach is aimed at bringing all the 'brains' together to have a more holistic approach to coping with the many issues in plant disease and health.

Besides the many pests and pathogens that currently infect our plants, there are more than 900 others that have the potential to pose a threat to the UK’s arable crops, trees, horticulture and wild plants – some of which will come under the remit of this new centre.

This makes it vital to adopt a co-ordinated approach across sectors to monitoring plant diseases, as well as helping stakeholders understand how to improve their own plant health capabilities, said its management team.

To tackle these challenges, the Scottish Government’s Rural and Environment Science and Analytical Services Division (RESAS) department for Rural Economy and Connectivity has provided funding to bring together a number of Scottish research organisations to establish a virtual 'Centre of Expertise for Plant Health'.

Working with the recently appointed chief plant health officer for Scotland, Professor Gerry Saddler, from Science and Advice for Scottish Agriculture (SASA), this centre will bring together key plant sectors within agriculture, forestry, horticulture and the environment to co-ordinate plant health needs and activities across Scotland.

It will be headed up by the James Hutton Institute, along with sector leads partners from Scotland’s Rural College (Agriculture), Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (Horticulture and environment) and Forest Research (Forestry). Add into the mix partners from Universities of Edinburgh, Stirling and Strathclyde, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and Biomathematics and Statistics, there will be a range of skills from understanding public perceptions to long-term disease forecasting to bolster the benefit of this new co-operative approach.

Of all potential threats to the UK, the centre will focus on those of highest risk to Scotland, taking into account our climate and the plants of most importance to our economy and social wellbeing.

For example, one of our major threats is the bacterial pathogen xylella fastidiosa which is able to infect over 200 plant species worldwide and is currently causing huge economic losses in Italy, has killed more than 1m olive trees and causing damage to other trees and flowering plants elsewhere in Europe.

For this and other threats, the centre’s activities will include a focus on understanding possible routes of entry into Scotland, the ability to spread to and infect our major plant species under our climatic conditions, as well as the best methods for control and when to implement them.

In addition, it will work closely with stakeholders to understand and act on their priorities and concerns to protect Scotland into the future.

At the launch of the centre, Cabinet Secretary Fergus Ewing, said: “Protecting Scotland from the environmental, economic and social consequences of plant pest and disease threats is becoming increasingly challenging. That is why I am pleased to announce the creation of the virtual Centre of Expertise for Plant Health.”

Professor Ian Toth, its director, added: “We are delighted the new centre is underway and look forward to engaging with experts and stakeholders from all sectors of plant health to work together for the people of Scotland. We have no doubts about the challenges ahead but we are hugely excited to be part of this new initiative”.

NFU Scotland's president Andrew McCornick commented on the initative: “Our climate is changing, and that brings challenges, and there is an increasing number of channels – internet trading, personal imports etc – that pose plant health risks.

"We need to be ahead of the game and ready to combat these threats. We are delighted that the Scottish Government has announced this centre of excellence, which will keep Scotland’s crops in the best of health.”

The creation of such a centre complements the existing portfolio covering Animal Health (EPIC) Climate Change (CxC) and Waters (CREW), all of which have been acclaimed by stakeholders.