Nurseries react to EU decision to bar products vital for growth

EU controlled-release fertiliser product ban criticised.

Controlled-release fertilisers: use has been significant over past 50 years for container, amenity and food crops
Controlled-release fertilisers: use has been significant over past 50 years for container, amenity and food crops

Horticulturists have criticised an EU decision to eliminate controlled-release fertiliser (CRF) products, which they say are essential for nurseries to produce healthy plants to be sold in garden centres. EC Annex 11 Component Material Categories (CMC) 10 "other polymers than nutrient polymers" seeks to outlaw the use of CRFs because they have plastic non-biodegradable coatings.

The use of CRFs in the UK has been significant over the past 50 years in container, amenity and food crop production. By providing a controlled, slow and defined release of fertiliser, large benefits over conventional, solid and liquid fertiliser applications have been made in environmental, horticultural and economical aspects.

Garden writer Peter Seabrook (see Comment & Opinion, p23) said: "The vote to leave the EU looks to be the right decision when facing the difficulties of getting a score and more countries to agree on policy. Take for example the new draft criteria for biodegradable polymers that, if brought in next year as proposed, will eliminate all the CRF products used in the UK and Europe.

"It is too easy to take for granted the steady improvements science brings to our everyday lives and in the case of CRFs the remarkable developments over the past 50 years. They are now fundamental to UK container, amenity and food crop care. Indeed, the much improved results obtained by home gardeners growing in containers is without doubt the result of slow-release plant feeding."

CRFs are made by enclosing up to 12 different nutrients in a polymer resin with tiny pores that open with heat expansion to let in moisture and close when temperatures drop over six weeks to 18 months.

Seabrook added: "While the industry accepts the need to be environmentally friendly with the products it supplies, in the case of CRFs it will take time to develop a casing that is both biodegradable and able to deliver plant foods in the right quantities for the climatic conditions over a period of months."

HTA consultant John Adlam said: "The proposed selection criteria in CMC(9) seem to have been translated from the use of polymers used for other purposes than plant nutrient granules and are unsuitable. We would therefore propose that entirely new draft criteria should be drawn up for CRF granule coatings rather than try to impose ones transferred from other plastic materials not used for this purpose.

"Current CRF coatings are environmentally friendly, safe to use and vital for plant growth. The members of the HTA would be placed in a seriously difficult position if the criteria in the proposed draft were adopted and we would urge the commission to engage with CRF producers and firstly draw up an impact assessment before setting up criteria and establish a timeline that enables CRF products to meet the environmental and horticultural needs with equal merit."

Garden Centre Association chairman and chief executive of Haskins Garden Centres Julian Winfield said: "It is essential that plants are fed with a slow-release fertiliser before they are despatched from a nursery and delivered to the retail destination. At Haskins we do not fertilise our plants on a regular basis and so plants would deteriorate more quickly, especially as we irrigate the plants on a daily basis, washing any normal fertiliser away."

Darby Nursery Stock director Anthony Darby said: "It would be difficult to imagine growing without them. Quality of production has improved over 40 years and they are essential to production management systems. If CRFs were not available then it would be impossible to tailor the daily or weekly feeding programmes to the specific needs of every cultivar."

He added: "CRFs are important to our retailer customers because they help ensure a good shelf life, minimise aftercare and prevent deterioration due to poor nutrition after the plants leave our care. The CRFs continue to work after planting in the garden.

"By comparison with all the alternatives, CRFs are good for the quality of our production, good for the environment, good for our retail customers, good for Britain's gardeners and therefore essential to the efficiency and prosperity of everyone involved in supplying the gardening sector."

Fargro's new managing director Richard Hopkins said: "I fear this is a case where the regulators are focusing on the process rather than the outcome. It's worth talking about because it's not widely known and there could be a very significant impact not just in horticulture but in agriculture."

HTA horticulture head Raoul Curtis-Machin said: "We will continue to challenge any threat to using the coatings on CRFs until we see proof and evidence of any environmental damage that they may cause."

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