Talking Point : Graham Nichols 14/01/05

As the NFU potato representative I have been in the unfortunate position of being at the meetings with two of the farms affected by ring rot, when DEFRA officials told the farmers about the costs of disposal and clean-up without the help of compensation. Experience, here and abroad, shows seed is a critical factor in the spread of this disease.

One of the outcomes of these isolated ring rot cases has been talk of a safe haven scheme. The simple principle is that it gives ware growers access to seed guaranteed free from ring rot because the seed production unit operates a strict one-way flow of seed, preventing the entry of the disease into the process. A further potential benefit would be that it gives us the infrastructure to be able to flush ring rot out through the entire system using clean seed should this ever prove necessary.

These theoretical benefits were attractive, but when I was asked to support the original safe haven concept I had major concerns. Mainly that was because some proposed it would operate on a regional basis. I could never see this working – not least because you cannot control what your neighbour grows. I could also see it being used as a marketing ploy for Scottish seed to the disadvantage of other seed growers south of the Border.

Nevertheless, it was clear that something must be done both to provide growers with peace of mind and security. Our low-disease status is worth fighting for.

So a group was formed under the auspices of the British Potato Council (BPC) to take the idea forward and we have had constructive meetings. Problems and concerns, such as mine, have been ironed out and a promising scheme has emerged.

Crucially, it will now be run on an individual farm basis and participating farms can be anywhere, provided they meet the standards required and follow the strict rules. Participation is entirely voluntary, but those who opt to take part must then adhere stringently to the protocols.

Ware growers will still have choices too. They can still buy imported seed or seed from British sources not participating in the scheme. But now there will also be the additional choice of sourcing from a seed producer accredited under the safe haven system. With that choice will come the assurance of full traceability for origin and production regime from the initial multiplication of disease-free mini tubers through to the present seed stock. Better still, both DEFRA and the Scottish Executive Environment and Rural Affairs Department have lent their support to the scheme and are looking at ways in which they can assist in administering it.

We have a long way to go, but we must try to keep this country disease-free to give reassurance to all our customers that they buy the very best and also to safeguard our export markets. So I urge you to support this positive initiative. And, when you next buy seed potatoes, to ask if they have been grown in a safe haven. The BPC will publicise soon more information on how the scheme will work when it is under way.

Longer term, we must also try to get a plant health insurance policy for notifable diseases operational. We are also more likely to get some help from government to kick-start a scheme if we are seen to be trying to get our house in order. I have encountered some negativity with some people suggesting that farmers would use it as an escape method in years of poor prices. British potato farmers are above that and don”t see why an affected farmer should have all the expense through no fault of his own.

Overall, the scale of progress now made on safe havens shows just what we can achieve when we set our mind to it and work together as an industry.

So, to me, there”s a compelling case to get the safe haven idea off paper and into practice and then to devote the same co-ordinated effort to addressing some of the other tough issues surrounding ring rot.

This is an important part of the jigsaw, and potatoes are leading the fight to keep plant diseases like potato ring rot out of the country. It is not right that individual growers are taking so much pain to protect the industry. Now is the time to contribute your views to the NFU on this and other ways to control the risk.