Should nursery use of pesticides and peat be printed on plant labels?

Information on pesticides, origin and peat could help inform customer choice.

Shardlow: wants transparency on environmental effect
Shardlow: wants transparency on environmental effect

An environmental organisation is calling for labelling of plants with details of peat, pesticides and fertilisers used in production to help consumers make a more informed plant purchase choice.

Buglife chief executive Matt Shardlow says three elements should be listed on labels:

-pesticides used in pot plant production
-plant origin ("which may be complicated")
-whether or not the plant is grown in peat

"That would give the consumer the ability to choose," he explains. "At the moment they go into the garden centre to buy pot plants that are good for wildlife or pollination and they can't see whether what they're buying is having a detrimental impact on the natural world.

"If they could see where they came from they would know the invasive species threat of that plant. If they knew what pesticides had been used they would know if it was good for bees and they could decide whether to buy a pot plant grown in peat or not." He says the NFU has campaigned for British-labelled cut flowers "but pot plants have a whole load of other issues mainly because they come in soil and that brings environmental risks".

Customer confusion

Industry figures argue that complex labels might confuse customers, but Shardlow says: "Giving consumers more information generally doesn't confuse them. It gives them more information on which to base their purchase. For me it's about British producers and growers developing their niche and that often has higher standards for the UK market and premium-quality exports, and being able to be transparent about environmental effects and implications."

Reducing the impact of invasives in the UK would give other countries confidence to buy more British plants, adds Shardlow. "There's an incredible risk with invasives at the moment. For instance, Obama flatworm in France eating earthworms leads to soil and flooding risks. They are incredibly costly and once here hard to stop." He also cites red palm weevil and Asian hornet as recent UK invasives.

Buglife recently encouraged people to report alien insect finds in pot plants in a "Potwatch" campaign and were told of 4cm-long mole crickets on raspberry canes and roses in Doncaster and Italy-imported golden bamboo in Surrey, plus a giant Egyptian grasshopper on an Italian-imported lobelia at a Tayside garden centre, Australian flatworms in Sidmouth and Brachyderes lusitanicus on a dwarf ornamental pine in Fulham.

Buglife is also calling for a ban on the importation of pot plants. Shardlow says: "At same time tiny stuff under 1mm causes huge damage. Any number of things can cause environmental havoc."

Horticulture industry representatives, growers and garden retailers look to be generally opposed to supermarket-style labels, other than having British flags on plants. "The onus is on the growers," says Garden Centre Association chief executive Iain Wylie. "Food labelling doesn't stop people eating sausages because they are x per cent fat. People make choices."

He says British or "locally-grown" labels are more important but other information is "going down the scale of importance". As long as the plants are grown within current regulations there is no problem selling them unlabelled, he maintains. "Are we making more red tape and hard work for ourselves?"

Last month, the University of Sussex's Professor Dave Goulson had a paper accepted for publication in the Environmental Science journal detailing pesticides, including neonicotinoids, found in garden centre plants.

Hillier director Chris Francis says: "I don't think labelling like that will be necessary. We don't use neonicotinoids. It was 25 years ago when we started biological control. I can see the day when no chemical products are used on nurseries. That's the journey we're on."

Newey Group's Alex Newey says he is against any more labelling "because I think the consumer is already confused and to do that confuses them even more".

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