Are plant import barrier concerns warranted?

Possible protection for UK nurseries worrying some growers in Holland

Plants: little change in appetite for Dutch products - image: HW
Plants: little change in appetite for Dutch products - image: HW

Increasing Dutch anxieties that the UK will introduce US-style barriers to importing plants are premature, according to industry figures. The HTA has suggested a scheme for the UK to produce all its own oak and some Dutch growers are worried about a policy to protect UK nurseries.

However, Dutch importers say they have noticed little change in the appetite for their product since the UK's vote to leave the EU in June 2016, other than a weather-related slowish start to 2017's selling season. Javado's Chris Campbell says: "With our growers it's business as usual."

There is concern about the USA because of the suggestion that new president Donald Trump wants to close the EUR300m annual plant import trade from Holland, with the USA growing its own instead. "Dutch growers question whether that will actually happen but it is a concern in terms of protectionism," adds Campbell.

The Dutch view is that the UK needs Dutch plants for much of its nursery production and good trading relations must continue. Dutch growers suggest many British nurseries would go bankrupt without European imports, with an end in trade leading to prohibitively high UK plant prices. February's Government Brexit white paper failed to mention horticulture.

Concerns about Brexit

International Association of Horticultural Producers secretary-general Tim Briercliffe says: "They (importers) are really concerned about Brexit. The problem with doing a trade deal within two years is we don't know how things like horticulture crops will feature - plants and flowers. From a UK point of view they are minor, but from a Dutch view they are important."

He adds that Dutch politicians have concerns over potential import tariffs. "They would stimulate UK production but it depends on the trade deal." In nursery stock "the UK has got quite strong in recent years", he says, but for pot plants and cut flowers "the UK is not in a position to ramp up production for import substitution" against more cost-effective importers.

However, for UK trees the "specific situation" going back to Chalara means there is a "good argument for building your own production base - that's a perfectly reasonable thing to do. If the UK comes out of the single market all these things are up for debate. The UK could set up a more protectionist approach, not just on trees, depending on the agreement. Producing specific types of tree could end up being a bit more encouraged but I can't see it having a big impact on the broader sale of horticultural plants."

Campbell says the amount of investment in UK infrastructure required to substitute imports by 2019 would lead to plant shortages. "Yes, there's an opportunity for English growers, but not an opportunity to replace a big percentage of Dutch production." He adds that there have been few changes in the market so far this year and he is taking UK garden centre buyers to a FloraHolland show in March in "healthy numbers", mirroring the experience of recent Holland trips run by the HTA to Garden Retail Experience and at Garden Centre Fresh's annual show.

Nervousness over imports?

A Dutch TV programme on the Brexit effect is filming this week, delivering from Javado to Alton Garden Centre, whose director Andy Bunker says on nervousness about importing from Holland that there is "none at all".

Andre Doordin of importer Profitplant says he has not heard many negatives and despite a slower start to the season, which he puts down to the weather: "It's good to know where we stand on what's going to happen with Brexit now" and "exchange rates are stabilising," he notes.

Anthos vice-chairman Jan de Vries told the HTA last month that the British benefit from good trade relationships because Britain cannot fully meet nursery stock demand.

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