Climate change and international trade in plants are increasing the incidence of invasive, non-native pest plants in Switzerland. These foreign invaders pose a real threat to Swiss ecosystems, biodiversity, and the commercial exploitation of Switzerland's forests. The federal government therefore tasked the Federal Institute for Forest, Snow, and Landscape Research (WSL) to build a laboratory where organisms that harm trees and shrubs can be identified and effective measures devised to combat these pests.
Together with the Swiss Federal Office for Agriculture (OFAG) and the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN), at WSL headquarters in Birmensdorf a new plant protection lab for safety levels 1 through 3 has been established to support the federal government's efforts to diagnose problems and discuss solutions relating to plants that damage Switzerland's forests and landscapes. The lab is also being used for research purposes. These duties are being discharged under the aegis of the Swiss Federal Plant Protection Service (SPPS).
Harmful organisms and their risk groups
In the new lab, the WSL is focusing on diagnosing and investigating particularly harmful organisms. These alien species can potentially harm native Swiss flora, so efforts have to be made to prevent them from being introduced into and spread throughout Switzerland. The species in question can be divided into the following risk groups:
- Group 1: Organisms naturally dispersed through Switzerland
- Group 2: Quarantine organisms already in Switzerland
- Group 3: Quarantine organisms that have either not yet reached Switzerland or only occur locally.
Any activities involving organisms in Groups 2 and 3 require special safety infrastructure. So both the building itself and the working procedures adopted there are designed to prevent any living organisms from escaping into the wild. In the new laboratory the WSL diagnoses and conducts research on harmful organisms in the risk groups 1 through 3. The species in question include insects, bacteria, fungi, viruses, and threadworms (nematodes), both inside and outside the forest.
Examples of dangerous organisms include the Asian longhorned beetle, the chestnut gall wasp, and ash dieback fungus.
Enhanced diagnostic and research facilities
The aim is to systematically combat and prevent the spread of harmful organisms in our ecosystems. Today, together with Swiss Forest Protection, the WSL is already running a Competence Center for Forest Protection and not only diagnosing damage caused to forest plants, but also carrying out phytosanitary research. In addition, the WSL advises forestry associations and businesses, forest services, and also Switzerland's federal and cantonal bodies and authorities. In the past the WSL's capabilities in this regard were limited, but the new plant protection lab enables it not only to identify problems, but also conduct extensive research on plant pests, investigating several organisms simultaneously. Reference cultures can be bred in the lab, and pests and infested plants can be kept there safely. On this basis, the WSL can develop methods for combating harmful organisms.
The laboratory's facilities are primarily for use by the Swiss Forest Protection, phytopathology and mycorrhiza research groups.