(Editor's notes: In this article, we will try to answer all of your questions regarding the new plant passport regulations. It is quite a long piece, longer than usual, consisting of the overview of the rules, the confusion and frustration around it and guidance on how to navigate this world of new rules. If you have any questions, comment and we will do our best to find the answers for you.)
The short answer to the above question is, well, in a right, old muddle. But let’s get our hands dirty and weed through people’s experiences and that tricky, new legislation.
The new Plant Health Regulations (PHR) to bolster horticultural health and keep track of any invasive pests or diseases in Europe are well and truly underway.
Under the banner of the European Union, the measures were heralded as a “simpler and “more transparent” way for traders and growers to protect their products.
The scheme is undoubtedly an important step for biosecurity. Over that, there can be no argument.
But many hobbyists have found that the change is anything but a walk in the park. In fact, from speaking to amateur growers and casual sharers of plants, they are somewhat in the dark. And they make up a big chunk of the gardening and plant community.
New plant rules
Before December 14 last year, only certain types of plants in Europe required documentation detailing their origin, official botanical names and the quantity in which they travelled.
Now all plants for planting and some seeds like French bean and field mustard require passports when being moved. The broadening of the labelling scheme is an attempt to modernise plant health and stamp out any pests that could threaten a thriving industry. So far, so good.
Under the new regulations, a business or “professional operators” need to register with the Animal Plant and Health Agency (APHA).
The aim is for national plant health authorities to have a list of producers and sellers.
That means, if you are professionally breeding, moving, storing or selling plants then you HAVE to be registered as an operator - this is free. To issue plant passports, you need the authorisation of the APHA - and this involves inspections, at a cost.
A small matter of Brexit certainly muddied the waters. It led to questions on how the UK’s new relationship with the EU could change the plant health laws that were borne from discussions in the European Parliament and Council.
Last year, Candide Gardening confirmed that regardless of the Brexit outcome, the EU Plant Health Regulation and plant passport scheme would be implemented in the UK. We heard how despite Brexit, UK authorities were ready to enforce biosecurity plant passports.
So, here we are. The bright new dawn for plant health. For some, it is still a little hazy.
Whole forums have been set up online for people seeking to understand the ins and outs of the passport regulations. People ponder things like: Who needs to register? Will there be health inspections and how many? Who needs to issue plant passports? And who archives them? Does face-to-face selling require a passport?
Hobbyists appear to have fallen through the cracks of the current legislation somewhat, with many amateurs left wondering whether APHA registration and plant passports apply to them.
The Department of Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA), tasked with enforcing controls and advising stakeholders on the new legislation, suggested that updates by the European Commission “very close” to the scheme’s deadline made it difficult to draft official guidelines. So you can see why ordinary people might be confused.
The phrase ‘professional operator’ is one that has many people in a muddle. For some, plants are a hobby and they do not turn a profit. However, they may still move plants that can potentially carry pests.
What we do know is that if you are supplying products through distance sales, like via the internet or through the post, then a plant passport is required.
Lucy Smithies is an avid swapper and sharer of plants by post. She says that the new rules and a lack of understanding of the legislation left her considering whether she will be able to continue her hobby.
“How can I be referred to as a ‘professional operator’? How can I be told that I need to register, issue plant passports and be inspected? I do not sell plants, I do not make any money; I swap for pleasure and to increase my collection.
“I enjoy growing plants from cuttings and leaves; it helps my mental health no end and the contact with the people I share with is meaningful,” she said.
“I think the rules have not been clear for individuals at all, especially with regard to swapping, sharing and gifting plants,” she said. “That is one thing that has got to me - the fact that APHA just blanketed everyone with the same instructions.”
Stuart Holden is another hobbyist who has found the whole process of figuring out how the new regulations will affect him “very frustrating”.
“When asked they seem to not know what to advise me to do or if there will be any costs. I feel the amount of hobbyists has taken them off guard,” he said.
DEFRA confirmed to Candide Gardening that amateur growers are not classed as professional operators. The department suggested that work is being done to make the situation clearer for hobbyists.
“...taking into account the range of activities that amateurs and hobbyists may carry out, we are currently drafting guidance on who would be classed as an amateur and therefore would be exempt from the requirement to be registered.
“Our approach will be proportionate and take into account the biosecurity risk presented by the activities carried out by individuals or groups dealing in plants,” the DEFRA spokesperson said.
Jacka Doherty is an amateur grower that occasionally sells sub-tropical plants online from her home in West Sussex. She feels that her hobby is now under threat because of the rule that requires people engaged in distance trading to register to issue plant passports. Cost is a major concern.
To be licensed to issue plant passports, you must undergo an APHA inspection. Such an inspection costs £61.58 per 15 minutes with a minimum fee of £123.16.
According to the latest guidelines by APHA and DEFRA, the fees include the time it takes inspectors to travel to your location.
“Nobody appears to be able to tell me how many inspections I’m likely to have per annum,” Ms. Doherty told Candide Gardening.
“I feel that my hobby is being taxed and it’s most unfair.
“I and many others like me are hobbyists that sell their surplus plants to other interested parties all over the UK. Personally, I really enjoy propagating plants and I get a real kick out of selling my plants to others but it’s my hobby, not a business and I’m not making a living out of this. I certainly don’t cover my costs.”
There has been a three-year run-up to the new regulations. However, details in the online APHA and DEFRA guidelines have been chopped and changed, or just omitted, in the last number of years.
In November 2019, people were told via the www.gov.uk website that plant passport policy required documents to be archived or recorded for 1 year. A month later in December, the guide said that records should be kept for 3 years.
“This is to improve biosecurity in the case of outbreaks, as some high-risk pests and diseases may have long asymptomatic periods,” the DEFRA spokesperson explained in an email.
In November 2018, the government guideline also mentioned that once registered to issue plant passports, APHA inspections would take place 2-4 times per year “depending on your business’ risk to plant health”. This does not appear on the guideline anymore.
DEFRA told Candide Gardening that once registered, businesses can expect a minimum of one inspection per year.
“The number of inspections is dependent upon the biosecurity risk presented by the business, for example, what plants they are trading in and what risk those plants represent.”
By looking back through archived updates on the www.gov.uk guidance page, the most comprehensive advice on plant passports went live on December 14.
When asked why this was the case, a DEFRA spokesperson said: “Key pieces of tertiary legislation under the new regulations were published by the European Commission very close to 14 December, and some are still pending, which made it more challenging to have comprehensive guidance in place ahead of this date.
“Nevertheless, we shared guidance on plant passports on the Plant Health Portal to provide as much information as we could to stakeholders ahead of 14 December. We continue to refine our guidance to ensure it is as clear as possible for our stakeholders.”
In response to why members of the public had been advised in emails from the APHA that the agency is "waiting on some further clarification from DEFRA Policy regarding how these regulations impact hobbyists," the department had the same answer.
They added: “In implementing the new Plant Health Regulation, our aim was to ensure trade continued to run smoothly from 14 December, when the new regulations became applicable. We communicated extensively with the trade to ensure our policies were proportionate whilst maintaining high levels of biosecurity.”
Not everyone has found the process frustrating. However, people with more positive stories do tend to be from the commercial side of the plant community, for whom the guidelines seem clearer.
Nicky Cartwright, Hardy Plant Manager at The Gardens Group, a member of the Garden Centre Association (GCA), admitted that the new regulations “take a bit of getting used to”.
“We are all in favour of biosecurity and ensuring no plant diseases are spread, so the plant passports are positive. However, it is very early days and for businesses like ours, and we expect for many other GCA members too, the main issue we have faced is incorporating this into our current software, without incurring extra costs."
She added: “We feel that everyone in the industry is in the same boat at the moment and with new legislation, there is often some confusion, but once things have settled down, it should run smoothly.”
Lee Betts is the owner of Exotic Earth Plants in Devon. A former hobby grower, his business is just taking off amid the talk of plant passports.
While Mr. Betts said that the scheme presents additional costs and workloads, he believes that once people get in touch with the APHA, the process can be straightforward.
“In terms of business costs and workload, yes it does add another layered element and takes time but ultimately it supports unnecessary diseases spreading.
“[Work] is increased due to filling out and archiving individual [passports for] plant orders. For a large online plant business, this would definitely cause added costs and changes to procedure.
“With smaller businesses, it is just about being organised and [having] templates ready to go, speeding up the process.’
Answers to your lingering questions… from DEFRA
Are you still puzzled? Then here is a quick rundown of questions we put to DEFRA. The APHA has yet to reply to our questions.
Is a plant passport required even if the plant is not travelling across a hard border?
Plant passports are required for all regulated plants moving within the EU, and that includes movements within the UK.
Do you need to keep a plant passport if you are a customer buying for personal use? The simple answer is no.
An operator is only obliged to supply such a final user with a passport if: They are supplied by means of a sale through distance contract or if they are being supplied with certain plants for which the UK has Protected Zone status.
“This list is being finalised by the European Commission and we will release further guidance soon,” DEFRA said.
Does face-to-face selling of plants require a plant passport?
Face-to-face selling of plants to final users buying for personal use (i.e. home gardeners) will not require a plant passport in most cases.
However, passports will be required for face-to-face selling to such final users if they are buying certain plants for which the UK has Protected Zone status.
Do individual units on a plant tray or trolley need to have individual plant passports?
Well, the easiest answer is - it depends. According to DEFRA, in the case that a trolley is moving from a single location to a single retail outlet without being modified (i.e. no plants have been added or removed from tray/ trolley), then a passport can be attached to a trolley of mixed plants as this is the last stage of the supply chain.
If a trolley is moving from one nursery to another, a single plant passport can only cover a single trolley or tray if the plants are homogenous.
A trolley of three different species, where each species is in its own tray - each individual tray should be covered by a passport.