The Plant Health and Seeds Inspectorate (PHSI) is part of the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) and is responsible for protecting the country and economy from the effects of plant pests and diseases.
In this blog Laura Chapman and Natalie Vallone tell us about the range of their work as Plant Health and Seed Inspectors.
There are many pests and diseases that could have a negative impact upon crops, plants, the landscape and ecosystem and my job as a plant health inspector is to protect all plants and trees in England and Wales – we are often called the ‘plant detectives’.
There are a number of plant pests and diseases called quarantine pests (not yet present in the EU) or regulated pests (present but not widely distributed). My role is to identify and control these pests and pathogens, to survey any new and emerging pests and diseases and to prevent their introduction and spread.
If a certain disease or pest was allowed to enter into the UK, it could have a devastating effect upon the landscape you see around you, or negatively impact a crop, such as potatoes, that you are used to seeing in supermarkets. A lot of people do not realise that some of the plants you see in garden centres are imported from Europe and we also inspect plants that have come in from further afield eg. Ethiopia and Kenya.
I visit various plant nurseries, garden centres, growers and other agricultural industries on a daily basis. I check their plants, trees and crops to prevent and control quarantine and regulated pests and diseases. If one of these pests or diseases is found, I am involved in organising emergency measures to control the outbreak.
There is, however, no real average day as unexpected tasks do transpire. For example, this week, I had to sample some growing media for export to Norway and previously to check it wasn’t contaminated, I have visited a bone china factory to assess the processes for export of bone china and clay to China and Malaysia! I also get called out to residential properties or businesses not involved in selling or trading plants; one man thought he had some diseased Prunus in his front garden, but it turned out to be caterpillar damage, and a school got in touch as they found numerous very hairy caterpillars, thought to be Oak Processionary Moth, a quarantine pest. I was able to reassure the school that these caterpillars were a native species.
My job and work priorities change depending on the season, so I have to be very adaptable and willing to change my working week to meet the needs of the business. Even in the depths of winter, I undertake tasks such as soil sampling to test for potato cyst nematode (as shown in my photo below). This involves walking fields and collecting soil samples which are then sent to a laboratory for testing. Despite the snow and bad weather, nothing stops me from doing my job!
Some additional work we carry out as Plant Health and Seed Inspectors:
Seed Potato Classification Scheme
Each summer, Plant Health and Seeds Inspectors can be found working in potato fields around the country to take on the huge task of walking over 4,000 hectares of potato fields, as part of the Seed Potato Classification Scheme (SPCS) – this is the equivalent to the area of 4,000 international rugby union fields!
The scheme provides classification for all potatoes produced and marketed in England and Wales to provide assurance that seed potatoes have met specified health and quality standards. Classification is based on class of the parent seed, the health of the crop and tubers.
Whilst walking the field, we are assessing the health of the crop, ensuring it is true to the variety and checking that it is free from mixtures. We are looking for virus (a yellow leaf mottle), black leg (black rotting at the base of the stem) and rogue plants (these are plants possibly from a previous cropping variety – see photo below).
Inspectors from all over the country are pulled together each summer to spend many days walking fields in sunshine, wind and rain; it is also a great opportunity to catch up with colleagues. This work has continued using government guidelines through the COVID-19 restrictions as potatoes are an important crop in the UK.
PHSI work with the National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB) to provide crop inspection services for cereals, peas, beans and herbage as part of the Plant Varieties and Seeds Division (PVS) certification work in England. The PVS protects farmers and their customers by guaranteeing that all certified seeds meet prescribed standards for varietal identity and purity, germination and freedom from foreign material.
To become a licensed and official crop inspector, I had to attend NIAB for my official crop inspector training and have to undertake refresher course every 5 years; this includes passing exams.
When out visiting the crops to carry out my check inspections, I have to confirm the identity of the variety in the field, detecting and recording any varietal (a plant of the same species where one or more of its morphological characters is outside the range of characters normally associated with that variety) and species impurities.
There are isolation guidelines to follow, for example, Triticale (a hybrid of wheat and rye) crops need to be 20 or 50 meters apart; this is to ensure there is no cross-pollination from neighbouring crops. I am then looking at the general condition of the crop: is it in a suitable condition for inspection; is there any pesticide spray damage; are there any weed species, diseases and lodging?
Crop inspecting is definitely one of my favourite parts of my job in the summer, as I love being out in the countryside. Sometimes it can be a challenge on very hot days, and I have a tendency to attract insects and horse flies, so a high SPF, suitable clothing and a good insect repellent is needed!