With the increase in the trade of plants over the last decades, the risk of introducing new pests and diseases has increased. Given favourable weather conditions and a lack of natural enemies, they can spread and lead to environmental damage, destruction of native plant species, substantial economic losses in agricultural production and an increase in the use of pesticides. Therefore, measures to prevent their introduction and spread are essential. Plant Passports are part of the armoury used by Europe and the UK, as a part of a wider EU strategy.
From 14th December 2019, the requirement to have a plant passport will be expanded as a consequence of the new Plant Health Regulation. The regulations to date from the EU will be repealed and replaced by Regulation (EU) 2016/2031 of the European Parliament and of the Council concerning protective measures against pests of plants.
The requirement to have a plant passport will apply to all plants intended to be planted out, replanted or remain planted. Everything that we now call cultivation material falls under this definition, as well as all pot, bedding and container plants ‘for consumption’.
All wholesale growers (not those trading to the public) of pot, bedding and container plants will be subject to the plant passport requirement, including the trade companies that handle these products. This means that all companies will be given one plant health registration number (unless they already have one), which must be specified on the plant passport. This will then provide an audit trail for those plants from grower, to supplier, to client.
The plants in question are known to host pests or diseases that have a major impact on plant species which are of economic, social or environmental importance. Of particular worry in the current climate are plants that do not show signs of infection and may have a latent period for the expression of those signs. The worry over Xylella fastidiosa is in the headlines. The concern is that recognition of this problem that can easily be mistaken for drought stress at the initial stages. This reduces the possibility for detecting the presence of such pests during inspections carried out when those plants are introduced into either the UK or the EU. The passporting system is designed to capture the most at risk genera. The teeth that the DEFRA and the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) have are sharpened through knowing where imported plants are ending up. They are then able to introduce more severe measures as the risks present themselves, right through to complete movement bans, as in the case of Ash.
The existing legislation for plants originating from third countries (those outside the EU) were not considered to be sufficient to prevent the entry of such threats. Therefore, the new regulations have a much wider net in order to ensure that certain plants coming in from third countries should either be listed as high-risk plants and refused entry, or that they possess correct certification to then be passported. This certification is a phytosanitary certificate guaranteeing that they have been properly inspected to be free from harmful organisms and fall in line with the regulations of the importing countries. Once in the EU, a plant passport may replace the phytosanitary certificate for imported plants. If the plants are grown on, there are production controls on ‘at risk’ plants during the growing season; producers are registered and if inspections prove satisfactory then passports are issued.
Needless to say, the EU has had to weave a rich tapestry to try to cover all variables in the sphere of plant and seed production: sensitivity to plants that pose no threat, awareness of movements in and out of the EU, and the establishment of protected zones (PZ) in areas within certain countries. Each protected zone is defined in relation to a particular harmful organism. Tuscany has recently been declared an Oak Processionary Moth PZ – unlike the rest of Europe where the pest is found. The UK, having had the area outside greater London as a PZ, is now on high alert after various instances of OPM have been found in the PZ and hosts destroyed. Part of the requirements are that the relevant EU country must ensure that the harmful organism(s) remain absent from the protected zones by following appropriate EU measures and carrying out annual surveys. The Passporting system is an organic process that must be able to move fast and efficiently, with good connectivity to Plant Health organisations internationally so as to be able to protect the environment of nation states.
The new Passporting regulations build on a responsible approach to Plant Health. It will now be the case that the chain of custody of a plant will be more transparent. The Passport number will feature on the plant labels and relate directly back to the producer, who in turn will be able to show their audit trail on those plants. It is a huge raft of administration, but the purpose of the changes is to protect environments under threat. Despite what the outcomes may be post 31st October, the UK will be party to these measures for the import and export of plants.