The potential for import substitution is tremendous but there are barriers as well as possibilities, says HTA consultant David Brown. As plant health issues continue to worry the trade and Government, and Brexit causes import rethinking, Brown believes now is the time for a scheme to stop imports of certain plants, namely oak to begin with, and start solely growing our own.
Ash, elm, oak, pine, plane and sweet chestnut are all notifiable species and prunus is also now on the list. There were 3,550 Animal & Plant Health Agency (APHA) notifications of imports in the first three years of the list - some 1.6 million trees. There were 2,400 notifications of oak - 1.1 million trees. Of these, 60 per cent came from the Netherlands, with Belgium, Hungary, France and Bulgaria the next largest importers. But, as Brown says, where they originally came from is unknown.
"Levels of imports have not reduced despite the exchange rate," he adds. This is surprising because trees cost so much more since the Brexit vote and the fall in the pound. Brown points out that from June to December 2016 there were 1,144 APHA notifications and 155,799 oaks imported. "There's still a huge number coming in, up to 12,000 seedlings in a shipment."
The reason why so much is being imported is the "hundreds of potential suppliers on Google listed for the undiscerning gardener, landscape architect, landscape designer or plant trader to buy", he explains. "These people need to understand the potential biosecurity risk."
His view chimes with Majestic Trees' Steve McCurdy, who believes imports via online sites are causing undue risks to British biosecurity. He says a proposed plant health management audit system being trialed by Boningale might raise standards but would not help with virtual nursery traders. The HTA says 80 per cent of plant trade is "through respectable nurseries", meaning one-fifth is not. Chief plant health officer Nicola Spence says the new EU plant health regime means plant health officers will "track down" traders who are not registered with the plant health service. She admits there can be problems with intra-EU trade that spreads pests and diseases.
Brown says there are many reasons why people import - availability, price, confidence there will be a short-notice delivery, range, track record, hedging bets and lack of UK market stability meaning UK growers cannot invest. "It's far too easy to phone the Netherlands. But if growers work closer together, could that call go to the UK?"
The Government has a responsibility to buy British for garden villages and road schemes, he adds. It could also stabilise planting grant tree sales, which fell from 61 million in 2014 to 40 million in 2016, meaning stock being destroyed. This included 2.5 million trees worth £400,000 by just one grower "after that market collapsed".
Traders, retailers and growers need to understand that UK production helps plant health and is good for import substitution, the balance of trade, jobs and local economies, and cuts the cost of dealing with plant health outbreaks and inspections. Brown suggests a logo and he will present his ideas to the HTA ornamental management committee. Starting with oak, the scheme could expand to many other species, he adds.
Spence points out: "There are exciting initiatives around, for instance, growing oak. With a good evidence base we can take this to discuss with ministers and departments to say: 'Look, here's an opportunity that also has biosecurity benefits and how can we take forward that initiative?'"
Solution - Responsible sourcing
HTA horticulture head Raoul Curtis-Machin says plant health has to "compete with the wider disaster zone" including problems such as bird flu, but a responsible sourcing scheme could be the answer. This could look at factors such as energy use, social compliance and others, and be part of a "suite" of responsibility schemes to reassure purchasers that plants are free from pests and diseases and otherwise legitimate. It could also help to solve the issue of "rogue traders". But Curtis-Machin is aware of the dangers of "audit fatigue" on growers.