Global trading opened ‘Pandora’s box’: Manchester academic issues warning cry to save 90 million ash trees

By Tui Benjamin

The killer disease threatening the UK’s 90 million ash trees is a result of the ‘Pandora’s box’ of global trading without considering biological implications, according to a Manchester Metropolitan academic.

Ash dieback, caused by the fungus Chalara fraxinea, has now been confirmed in 32 woodland sites across England and could threaten the iconic ash forests of the Peak District, which borders Manchester.

The fungus has wiped out 80% of ash trees in Europe in the last decade, and has meant that 100,000 infected ash trees have been destroyed in the last six weeks in the UK.

Dr Robin Sen, who has highlighted the threat of ash dieback on the BBC this weekend, said that the ash spread is a result of ‘trade gone mad’ and proves the danger of putting global markets before their biological repercussions.

“Politicians are saying we couldn’t have stopped the import of ash because it’s a free market within the EU, but that doesn’t stop you having security controls over products that could cause a threat to the wellbeing of another member state,” he said.

“It’s opened up a Pandora’s box.”

Dr Sen has highlighted the need for a plant equivalent of the World Health Organisation, a surveillance and early warning body to look for disease emergencies.

“The problem is the belief that humans are so important on this planet that nothing else matters. All our energies are put to looking at human health. We care about ourselves to the exclusion of everything else on this planet,” he said.

The native British ash provides around 5% of our woodland, with the Peak District’s historic ash woodlands now in danger.

“Can you imagine the peak distinct without ash? Cressbrook Dale is one of the best ash woods in the country,” he said.

“Future generations should be able to enjoy ash. Trees field a lot of emotionality to a lot of people.”

Owen Paterson is to chair a summit on ash dieback on Wednesday to discuss the results of the Forestry Commission’s survey and to decide whether to destroy all infected trees found in the wild.

But Dr Sen said to burn all the trees would be useless and it is far more important to seek out that small proportion of trees which are less susceptible to infection.

He said that breeding resistance is the best way to target the disease, but urged government scientists to consider the alternative to lengthy classical breeding: genetic engineering.

Highlighting the ash dieback case’s potential for helping the public realise genetic engineering is no longer a contentious issue, he explained that the process now works without using any foreign DNA or new genes.

“It’s just like evolution – we wouldn’t be on this planet without natural genetic modification,” he said.

A Lincolnshire plant nursery affected yesterday considered legal action against the government after they were forced to destroy 50,000 of their ash trees.

An import ban was brought in on October 29 but nurseries are saying the government should have blocked imports sooner.

But Dr Sen has argued that now is not the time to make accusations.

“There’s no point playing the blame game, we just have to work out how to solve the problem,” he said.

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