According to...Tim Edwards

I recently saw a presentation by the Belgium Growers' Association outlining the importance of ornamental Horticulture to that small European country.

The figures themselves are impressive – total production of more than €300m; exports of €150m and imports of just €50m, meaning that ornamental Horticulture contributes around €100m to the country’s balance of payments. But to a UK perspective it’s the fact that they have any figures at all, figures growers have faith in, that is really impressive.

They were able report that the UK was the destination for just 8% of exports in 2011, down from a high of 17%, but that this year exports to the UK are currently up by almost 50% on last year. The Belgians explain this increase with a throwaway line about the level of the exchange rate. It’s easy to put this interest in the figures down to the fact that Belgium is a net exporter of plants – perhaps that gives them more reason to collect information and certainly export figures are relatively easy to derive.

But the Belgians don’t only record import and export figures; they have figures for home production and home consumption too. No doubt they have to make assumptions at points in the collection process and no doubt Growers have to put their share of effort into that process.

I’ve no doubt too that the figures produced are not one hundred per cent accurate, but that’s not the point: once data has been collected in the same way for a few years it reveals trends that are meaningful. Certainly the Belgians, with an eye to export, make use of those figures.

And what about us? As net importers of stock, should we be interested?  I certainly think so.

I’ve never understood why, when export is seen as an economic holy grail, import substitution is not looked at in the just same way. The Belgians have information to tell them what’s happening to their export figure and you can be sure they would put up a fight if they felt it was threatened with collapse. Likewise they would fully embrace any opportunity to increase that figure. Shouldn’t we monitor production, imports and exports; keep an eye out for factors that make imports easier and fight to create import substitution wherever we can?

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