Monday, 3 December 2012

Ashes to Ashes

I don’t think I’ve ever been offered a bunch of roses by a government official before. A touching moment but the reverie was slightly undermined by the accompanying words: “Can you see any white fly or leaf miner damage in the foliage?” Not necessarily the stuff of romance.
The plant health inspector lacked amorous intent and was simply manning the front line in the battle to keep diseases out of the country; a line drawn, in this case, through a warehouse on an industrial estate just outside Heathrow. The cavernous interior was full of aluminium air freight crates and the beeping sound of reversing fork-lifts. One of the great joys of the job is seeing the industrial process behind things we then take for granted in our fridge or living room. Pallets stacked with spring onions from Mexico, pink roses from Zambia, and something called Christmas Rudolf flowers from China. One box was ripped and the head and shoulders of the ‘Red-nosed One’ were poking out.
Anything with roots and soil is scrutinised closely, flowers are considered lower risk but samples are still taken from most consignments and studied under a microscope. The inspectors find something troubling most days.
But – and it is a pretty big but when we consider the ash tree disease – they are only inspecting material from outside Europe. Within the EU free trading rules mean you cannot interfere or inspect goods without a very good reason and, sadly, a highly lethal fungus with the potential to destroy huge swathes of our deciduous woodland wasn’t a good enough reason to stop importing ash tress by the lorry load from areas where the disease was rampant.
Earlier in the week I had been at a conference on ash die-back recording interviews for the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘Costing the Earth’. It was a gathering of the top European tree disease experts held in Lithuania which happens to be one of the countries where it was first spotted more than 15 years ago. Experts there described Europe as a black hole pulling in plant pathogens from across the world and then, once in the continent, free commerce rapidly spreads them to every corner. I know it’s pretty difficult to stop fungal spores blowing in the wind, but that doesn’t mean we have to give them a free truck ride across the channel.   Maybe we could ask if they’d like a bacon sandwich or a piece of rotting wood to keep them going.

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