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Management of infectious animal and plant diseases is vital for food security

Visit the Rural Economy and Land Use website Visit the Global Food Security website

9 June 2011

We face a future of uncertainty, and possible new threats to our food supplies, natural heritage, and even human health, from animal and plant diseases. This is according to researchers from the UK Research Councils' Rural Economy and Land Use Programme (Relu), reporting in a special issue of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B. Relu brings together five public funding bodies (including BBSRC), all of which are also partners in the Global Food Security programme.

In this issue the academics take a fresh look at infectious diseases of animals and plants from an interdisciplinary perspective. In particular, they draw conclusions about the impact of increasing global trade on the introduction of exotic diseases to the UK.

Director of the Relu Programme and an editor of this special issue, Professor Philip Lowe said "We live in a global economy: we have seen in the recent E coli outbreak in Germany, how the complexity of the food chain can increase risk and uncertainty.

"Ultimately we may have to take a more precautionary approach to the movement of animal and plants, and recognise that free trade could, in some cases, pose unacceptable risks."

In addition, climate change is driving shifts in cropping patterns across the world, which could encourage the movement of plant pests and diseases. We are also seeing completely new pathogens evolve, while existing ones develop the ability to infect new hosts. During the 20th century the number of new fungal, bacterial and viral diseases in plants appearing in Europe rose from less than five per decade to over 20.

These problems are exacerbated by human behaviour, and understanding this could be key to helping policymakers deal with risk and uncertainty.

In many cases the spread of disease is caused by increased trade, transport and travel. Trends in the international horticultural industry have been towards fewer, larger producers, supplying vast numbers of retailers. Thus, disease which begins in one location may be spread far and wide.

Changes in the livestock trade have similar effects at national level. Reduction in income per animal, and the introduction of mechanisation, means that fewer farmers manage more animals per farm, and animals are moved around more frequently. They may be born in one location but sold on and reared elsewhere. Government policy and the classification of diseases may even increase the risks. Farmers restocking to combat one disease may, unwittingly, introduce another.

Professor Janet Allen, Interim Chair of the Global Food Security Programme Coordination Group and Director of Research at BBSRC said "There are multiple factors that affect our ability to provide enough nutritious, safe food to everyone in the world, including the management of infectious diseases of plants and animals.

"The challenges we face in relation to this and other problems can only be met through the employment of a range of research from across the disciplines including biological, environmental, medical, political, and social sciences.

"We are always improving our understanding of the best ways to minimise risks from endemic, exotic, new and emerging diseases of crops and livestock and this issue highlights the very real need to consider the impact of changes to the farming and distribution of plants and animals."


Notes to editors

The issue referred to is Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, July 12, 2011; 366 (1573).

About Relu

The Rural Economy and Land Use Programme is an interdisciplinary collaboration between the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), with additional funding provided by the Scottish Government and Defra. See for more information about the Relu programme.

About the Global Food Security Programme

The UK's main public funders of food-related research and training are working together through Global Food Security to meet the challenge of providing the world's growing population with a sustainable, secure supply of good quality food from less land and with lower inputs.

The programme delivers coordinated, multidisciplinary research through 4 themes:

  • Economic resilience
  • Resource efficiency
  • Sustainable production
  • Sustainable, healthy, safe diets

Partners are: RCUK, BBSRC, ESRC, EPSRC, MRC, NERC, The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, Defra, DFID, the Food Standards Agency, the Government Office for Science, Scottish Government, the Technology Strategy Board, and the Welsh Assembly Government.


BBSRC is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £470M in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life in the UK and beyond and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders, including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors.

BBSRC provides institute strategic research grants to the following:

  • The Babraham Institute
  • Institute for Animal Health
  • Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (Aberystwyth University)
  • Institute of Food Research
  • John Innes Centre
  • The Genome Analysis Centre
  • The Roslin Institute (University of Edinburgh)
  • Rothamsted Research

The Institutes conduct long-term, mission-oriented research using specialist facilities. They have strong interactions with industry, Government departments and other end-users of their research.