Plant pest detection technologies: from research to real life

26 July 2016

By Barbara Agstner, economist at Fera Science

Barbara Agstner Fera science economistAs an economist working in a research organisation, part of my daily bread and butter is to assess costs and benefits of new technologies. A current example I am working on are detection devices, as part of a project on new approaches for the early detection of tree health pests and pathogens. To carry out such assessment, I need to know who is going to use these new technologies, in what way, and what the consequences are. In the case of a handheld ‘scanner’ for diseased plants, for example, will someone regularly scan all plants at an airport or nursery, and what will they do if they find a potentially diseased specimen? Is it an effective way to keep novel diseases out of our country, or can it help to manage a disease which is already here? What are current plant health measures, and how would the new technology sit with these?

Such questions require scientists to identify those who might use their inventions, assess whether these really address a pertinent problem, and how they sit with current practices. In other words scientists need to engage with potential end-users throughout all stages of technology development: invention, concept validation, application development, technology demonstration, operational validation, and deployment.

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Image credit: Fera Science

To support this process, our colleagues Mariella Marzano and Rehema White have organised a series of visits, including a field trip to three nurseries around York. We are very grateful to the Wykeham Nursery (FC), Wykeham Mature Plants and Johnsons of Whixley for welcoming us on their operating sites. A tour through each nursery, accompanied by lively discussions (and quite a bit of rain and mud – welcome to Yorkshire!), provided an ideal platform to learn about current practices and problems regarding plant biosecurity.

The visits helped us to get a feeling for the magnitude of operations and the volume of sales, and to better understand the requirements for detection technologies if they were to be incorporated into everyday processes. Currently, inspections are primarily visual – sometimes supported by Lateral Flow Devices (which work like a pregnancy test) – with potentially infected plant material being sent to the lab for further analysis. Ideally nurseries are looking for technologies, which are either handheld or can be attached to sprayers or other machinery, and deliver fast results. Using a scanner at the point of quality control in a forestry nursery, for example, would be easy in terms of implementation but too late for the business, as harvesting costs have already been incurred.  Fast detection at delivery is of special interest to wholesales nurseries as it would enable them to immediately reject diseased plant material.

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Image credit: Fera Science

Continuing the theme of knowledge exchange and stakeholder engagement, this three year project will culminate in a biosecurity conference in March 2017 which will bring together scientists, policy makers, and industry. While the conference focus is on plant biosecurity, we are aiming to include experts from a variety of fields, like animal health, invasive species, or behavioural sciences. If you are interested in the project or conference please feel free to have a look at their websites. Registration for the conference is now open!

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