Brexit could compromise farmers’ biosecurity, Lords report says

The UK could lose access to vital EU alerts on animal and plant pest and disease threats after Brexit, which could significantly compromise the UK’s biosecurity.

In a report published today, the House of Lords EU Energy and Environment Committee, highlights that plant and animal diseases, and invasive non-native species, are a constant threat to the UK’s ecology and economy. 300 different pests and diseases were intercepted at the UK border last year.

Currently, most decisions on how to react to biosecurity threats are made at an EU level. The UK also benefits from EU-wide intelligence gathering and disease notification systems, systems for tracing plant and animal movements, and coordinated research efforts.

When the UK leaves the EU, it will no longer automatically be part of this framework.

Given the geographical proximity, and the volume of trade and travel between the UK and the EU, continued cooperation is critical but the Committee identified at least seven areas where Brexit could lead to a shortfall in the UK’s biosecurity:

  • Information sharing;
  • Capacity in the veterinary sector;
  • Inspections and audits;
  • Access to research funding;
  • Enforcement of biosecurity legislation;
  • Capacity within Government departments and agencies; and
  • The legislative framework.

Lord Teverson, chairman of the Committee, said: “The 2001 foot and mouth disease outbreak in the UK led to more than six million animals being slaughtered and is estimated to have cost over £8 billion. The outbreak of Dutch elm disease that began in the 1960s destroyed millions of elm trees in the UK, and now there are fears over ash dieback and African swine fever. These examples highlight just how important biosecurity is, and the devastating impact that animal and plant diseases can have.

“The existing arrangements are far from perfect but significant gaps will be created when the UK leaves them. We rely on the EU for everything from auditing plant nurseries and farms to funding our research laboratories. The UK Government has a huge amount of work to do to replace this system in time for Brexit, and failure to do so could have an economic and environmental impact that would be felt for decades to come.”

The Committee urged the Government to seek continued participation in the EU’s notification and intelligence sharing networks. They also express doubt that the Government would be able to have a replacement legislative framework, along with the monitoring, inspection and enforcement mechanisms, staff and IT systems to support it, by March 2019 when they would be needed in the case of a ‘no deal’ Brexit.

“This risks leaving the UK’s biosecurity seriously compromised,” Lord Teverson said.

“The Committee recognised that leaving the EU offers the opportunity for the UK to implement far stricter biosecurity measures than are currently in place. But doing so would create barriers to the free-flow of goods in and out of the country, as additional checks are imposed.”

A Defra spokesperson said: “The government’s ability to protect the country from pests and diseases will not be compromised once we leave the EU, nor will we stop sharing information with European or other global partners. To do so would be in nobody’s interests.

“All member countries are required to report any listed animal disease to the World Organisation for Animal Health within 24 hours of a disease being confirmed. We will also remain part of plant information-sharing networks, such as European and Mediterranean Plant Protection Organization (EPPO).

“Within Defra we have taken a number of steps to maintain our high biosecurity standards post March 2019. This includes working with industry to make sure the necessary numbers of vets are in place.”

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