The Healthy Plants, Healthy Business conference took place at Horticulture House on 29 January, discussing all things plant health and biosecurity related to a sell-out room.

Opening the day was a welcome and introduction from HTA President, Adam Taylor, Taylors Bulbs, who set the scene for the day and highlighted the importance of the issues to be discussed during the day to the audience.

We were then privileged to welcome Lord Gardiner of Kimble, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Rural Affairs and Biosecurity, who opened the day saying that he is Gardiner by name and a gardener by nature. He stated that we all know that our plants and trees are vital to our economy, and we have to all work together to ensure we can to protect these assets. We should be proud that we are historically a country of plant hunters, and it is important that we now do all we can to protect the UK’s biosecurity.

Lord Gardiner of Kimble has seen first-hand the consequences of finding harmful pests and diseases in this country, and the problem with pests and diseases is they don’t respect borders. Whatever the relationship with Europe in the future, government policy will ensure robust protection of biosecurity. Next year is International Year of Plant Health, and this will help to highlight the importance of plant health to the public and wider industry, building on the Year of Green Action in 2019. They want to involve as many people as possible to improve the environment, working together to help improve the health of the nation’s plants. Many people will already be taking forward many elements of biosecurity, and Lord Gardiner of Kimble encourages more people to lead from the front and encourage others to do the same. Many of the audiences’ customers think about where they are buying their plants from and the health of the plants that they may be buying. The new Plant Health Standard is a great way to help improve the health of plants within the industry. If we get the issue of biosecurity wrong, the consequences will be devastating.

Nicola Spence, Defra Chief Plant Health Officer, then gave the audience the latest plant health update. She started by saying that launching the plant health management standard is an incredible achievement. Nicola pointed out that whilst it may seem that the standard is just focussed on plants, there are many other ways in which biosecurity needs to be maintained, and that we need to take responsibility for the whole system. Other biosecurity issues include wood products, household items, machinery, vehicles, direct sales, and postal services, and even works of art. All of these can carry pests and diseases into the UK. Defra are working with manufacturers to promote the use of treated or responsibly sourced woods, as non-compliant wood packing can cause a huge cost to a business. The need for plant-based products biosecurity is everywhere.

The UK Plant Heath Risk Register has between 5 and 10 new pests every month. Many are low risk, but it is important that Defra looks at and analyses them all. Stakeholder engagement is an important part of this process, and Defra welcomes all to view and comment on the information, letting them know what is worrying you and issues you may have. This engagement is incredibly important, as is engaging with the public. The ‘Don’t Risk It’ campaign is a nudge to the public, reminding them about the risks they create by bringing back plants from their holidays. Don’t Risk It posters are all around the country, including the Ministry of Defence and the Border Force.

Nicola then ended her talk by discussing a range of different pests and diseases that are currently posing the biggest risks. The Xylella update included how there has recently been a finding in a zoo in Portugal in lavender. This was found during a routine inspection and may have been there a while. It was also found on a Coffea office plant in the Netherlands. Whilst there is a Xylella contingency plan in place, Defra are always looking at what more they need to do. They are making sure the laboratories are ready and how they can develop methods of control and collaborating with other EU countries.

It is important to remember that there are several strains of Xylella, and the outbreaks in Europe have different combinations of strains. Some strains may do better in the UK than others due to the climate, but others may well not survive, especially in the North of England. Research is being done with the aim to predict where the areas most at risk are. However, Xylella can travel in a plant anywhere, and it may find a way of surviving wherever it travels. Professor Spence empathised that we must also be aware of the pathways of other pests, for example the Asian Longhorn Beetle that has been intercepted in furniture and wood.

Derek Grove MRSB SPHP, APHA Plant & Bee Health EU exit manager, then followed on from Nicola to discuss the impact and mitigations of Brexit on the trade of plants and biosecurity. Derek mentioned they are working on finding a balance through the changes that are potentially ahead of us.

Derek gave an overview of the current provision of biosecurity within trade at pre-border, the EU import regulations, at the border, and post border.

Derek also covered what to expect on day one of a ‘no deal’ scenario for plants currently under the EU Plant Passporting scheme, those not under the Plant Passporting scheme, and the changes that will occur regarding border checks.

For plants currently under the Plant Passporting scheme, importers will need to register on the PEACH website and inform them of all planned imports ahead of their arrival. 

Planning ahead of whatever Day 1 of the UK exit from the EU may look like, APHA and Defra will continue to engage with trade, and are working to identify demand, and planning how to deliver the demand for services. They encourage stakeholders to read all the guidance available on the changes coming regarding importing plants. Please engage with APHA with any questions or queries regarding the planning of logistics to take account of pre-notification requirements for imports, and ensure suppliers are aware of requirements for day 1 and have prepared.

It is also important that if applicable, to apply for Place of First Arrival.

This was followed up by a talk on the Plant Health Assurance Scheme, and the launch of the Plant Healthy Self-Assessment tool by Alistair Yeomans, HTA Horticulture Manager.

The new Plant Healthy website provides a self-assessment tool for horticulture businesses and organisations to improve the biosecurity of sourcing systems and advance plant health management practises. The free tool is available at: planthealthy.org.uk

The tool is based on the recently published Plant Health Management Standard (PHMS) – an initiative that Grown in Britain and the Horticultural Trades Association (HTA) have been working hard to advance, along with many other organisations. The standard provides a set of requirements for businesses to meet, with a view to protecting the horticultural supply chain and the wider countryside from damaging pest and diseases. Although initially developed for the UK market, the standard is set out in a manner that enables it to be adopted internationally.

The tool is a self-assessment questionnaire which enables a business’ current plant health practises to be measured against the PHMS. It will assist businesses to check that they are fulfilling statutory obligations; understand pest and disease threats; and set out a plant health policy. 

The tool is intended to help businesses prepare for independent audits which will be available once the Plant Health Assurance Scheme is launched later in 2019. Currently the HTA is working with the Plant Health Biosecurity Steering Committee to set up governance structures and appoint certification bodies, that will independently audit businesses. When the scheme is ready, and once successfully audited, a business will receive an assurance certificate enabling them to demonstrate that robust plant health management practises are integral to their operations.

Alistair also highlighted the UK Plant Health Information Portal. This has useful information on all plants, for example, type a plant in and it will provide information on pests and pathogens that can infest it. The UK Plant Health Risk Register is also a highly useful resource and currently has 1028 pests registered. The entire database register can be downloaded, and it will give a useful database including the pest name, common name, hosts it can infest, whether it is present in the UK or not and a risk rating. There is a supporting document alongside this that shows how the risk ratings are judged.

Rebekah Robinson, Royal Horticultural Society, then gave an insight into the RHS perspective on plant health.

The RHS have six guiding principles when it comes to their plant health policy:

  1. Provide guidance on plant health issues to protect the sustainability of gardens and horticulture in the UK. ​
  2. Assess plant health risks prior to undertaking activities that are likely to have phytosanitary implications and identify what mitigations are required. ​
  3. Adopt practices across RHS activities that minimise plant health risk, whilst balancing that risk with horticultural benefit. ​
  4. Prioritise and undertake research to generate the knowledge necessary to manage plant health risks to UK horticulture.
  5. Communicate and exchange knowledge to enable informed decisions to be made to manage plant health risks to UK horticulture. ​
  6. Work collaboratively, internally through the RHS Plant Health Working Group and with external organisations to contribute to the management of plant health risks to the UK and to help develop the skills necessary to manage such risks.      

In order to deliver on these principles, the RHS focus on: diagnostics and research; the RHS Gardens and Retail; Training and Outreach; and the RHS Shows.

Diagnostics and research include gardening advice and surveys, and research into detection, life cycles and integrated management.

The RHS has offered free gardening advice to RHS members for over 100 years. This means that the RHS also has 500,000 enthusiastic members and expert eyes, which led to 9,600 plant health enquiries in 2018. The RHS then work closely with APHA and the Forestry Commission to follow up on any of these queries that are deemed necessary.

RHS diagnostics have helped to bring new issues to the forefront such as Agapanthus gall midge, new to the UK such as Heuchera rust (Pucchinia heuchera) in 2004, Box Tree Moth (Cydalima perspectalis) in 2008, and Kerria blight (Blumeriella kerriae​) in 2014, and extended host lists such as Oak powdery mildew (Erysiphe alphitoides) to wisteria.

Monitoring includes long term surveys, such as on European pear rust and Rosemary beetle.

The RHS Gardens and Retail have appointed three new positions in the plant health team, bringing it up to 17 members. They have reviewed plant purchasing procedures and invested in new plant reception areas.

RHS Shows have committed to:

  • Provide plant health training to exhibitors and show staff​
  • Continue to inspect plants at RHS flower shows (working alongside APHA inspectors) ​
  • Conduct ‘spot checks’ to confirm compliance with plant health requirements​
  • Provide plant health training for RHS judges and technical support, if required, during judging

For all RHS Shows the direct use of the nine highest risk hosts for Xylella is banned, unless propagated from seed in the UK or grown in the UK for a minimum of 12 months. Semi mature trees exhibited at RHS Shows should be sourced and grown in the UK, or if imported, held, and monitored in the UK for at least three months prior to use in RHS Shows.

The afternoon sessions of the conference focussed on businesses within the supply chain, and how plant health is affecting each one individually. Starting off was Jonathan Whittemore, Johnsons of Whixley, from the grower perspective.

Jonathan discussed how the impact of evermore serious plant health issues has significant implications on the way that they run their business – finding the balance of commercial necessity and the need to protect their business and the UK countryside is becoming a part of everyday nursery life. Johnsons of Whixley only trade with businesses in areas that they can be confident are free of particular pests and diseases. They understand how their young plants are grown, so they know how to protect and look after them. As a nursery they are charged with looking after the biosecurity of the industry. They need to ensure they bring nothing nasty onto the nursery. They are working on how to make their plants more robust so that they can better defend themselves. They are proactive in their search for better clones and varieties of plants that aren’t affected by the regular issues.

There is far more to plant health for the grower than there ever has been. So much is out of their hands and in the hands of others. The reality of modern-day horticulture for the grower needs to be a holistic one. The industry needs a far greater range of tools in their box, taking a more tenacious approach. The route to market can be far more complex than you can imagine, so at Johnsons they have invested in new technologies and training their staff in those technologies.

Richard McKenna, Provender Nurseries, then continued this journey from a wholesaler/importer’s perspective. With consideration to Xylella, Richard said how it is important to remember that where countries have major exports in the likes of oranges, olive oil, prosecco, and wines, they have a massive interest in ensuring their biosecurity because of the potential affect it can have on their GDP. This is potentially a far greater than the impact it could have on the UK. Richard believes that a holistic approach is needed to approach biosecurity. Just because a plant is sold as a ‘Home Grown’ plant, it doesn’t mean that plant material used in production didn’t originate from international sources. Nurseries may say they only sell UK stock, but where did that stock originally come from? Everyone needs to work together in order to tackle the issues that the UK faces.  We have created an industry and stripped out all the costs that are not necessary to give the consumer next along the line a cheaper price. However, if we want to sell the best plants possible, there will be investment needed and an acceptance of higher costs from all involved. The solution is here; we don’t have to just import as much as we want, we need to support UK nurseries and help them to expand yet still import responsibly where necessary. There is a week pound at the moment with the uncertainty around Brexit, so importing is more expensive than it used to be, and transport costs are rising. Now is potentially a golden time for UK horticulture to thrive.

Andy Bunker, Alton Garden Centre, then spoke about the retailer perspective, and how the Tillington Group of Garden Centres are approaching plant health. At Alton Garden Centre they have currently seem a loss on sales on Olive trees of approximately £10,000 a year. This is due to them making the tough decision of not stocking olive trees from any region, and this is across the Tillington Group. This is alongside the growing number of hosts plants for Xylella and other notifiable pests. This has meant that they have seen a reduced range of plants they are able to offer to their customers, and increased concerns about importing plants.

Following on from the discovery of Xylella on lavender in Portugal, garden centres and nurseries may struggle to find flowering lavenders for early sales.

At Alton’s they have already made changes to the way that they buy plants and would support the Plant Healthy initiative. Andy believes that everyone, businesses or individuals, should be part of it. This should include growers, landscapers, wholesalers, and retailers regardless of the business size. He also believes that the media, press and key industry figures need to promote the scheme more to the public, giving it a badge similar to the Red Tractor Scheme. Prince Charles has already appeared on BBC Gardeners World discussing the subject and he believes the appetite for plant health is there.

Rod Winrow, Garden House Design and APL Chairman, then discussed how Plant Health is viewed from a landscaper perspective, and how the APL is educating its members.

Rod sees the main challenges in landscaping to be:

  • Training - there is a lack of trained team members that leads to associated costs.
  • Design and availability - the most affected plants are the basics of most commercial schemes, particularly low-budget housing – tough, colourful & cheap.
  • Chain of custody - cheap competition in mail order, plant traders and direct importers, not through credible and managed supply chains.​

The answers are the need for highly visible campaigns to positively explain the problems and risks associated with plant health, and how to protect the plant investments. The requirement to explain why well sourced plans will be more expensive. Buying habits can be changed, just look at the shift towards organic food and the move away from single use plastic bags. There is also a need to change commercial planting specifications and design. Robust design substitutions need to be found that are inexpensive and readily available. Commercial margins are low, and planners and specifiers need to specify plants and providence to ensure clients and main contractors cannot purchase on cost alone.

Rod also believes there is a need to protect the professional. Standards are vital to prevent confusion and bad practice. Rod’s view is that the standards needs to have teeth to protect good nurseries, wholesalers, landscapers, and designers. A simple system of reporting and policing poor practice has to be implemented; a system such as modern slavery hotline number would be a starting point.

The APL is working alongside the HTA to develop, manage and monitor a management scheme that is useable for landscapers and designers. They are keeping members up to date at all times of latest developments, face to face as well as through email. Plant Health is now being included as part of the APL Annual Inspection, and they are encouraging members to share information with industry colleagues.

So far in APL Cluster Meetings from Scotland to Cornwall they have presented a plant health seminar to over 100 industry professionals and the work continues.

The APL believe the real message here is to support your local nurseries and wholesalers. They are working hard to ensure the best practice, and they are geared for quarantine and inspection.

Rod has been working on how the landscaping community can make an immediate difference and has spoken to other landscaping organisations to develop a commitment to ‘Spread the Word’. The APL, BALI, the SGD, and the Landscape Institute have all agreed to the statement of:

“We the undersigned, offer our commitment to “spread the word” through training, information and informal discussions to our members & industry colleagues, of the importance of protecting our industry, economy & country from the threat of plant diseases and pests, by working to agreed standards and a monitored & standardised supply chain. ​”

The day was then brought to a close with the final speaker, Celia Knight, FRSB, RPHP, talking about the Plant Health Professional Register (PHPR).

The PHPR was established in 2016 for government to demonstrate competencies against the GB Strategy for Plant Health and Biosecurity and encourage CPD in plant health. There are three levels of the register – Associate, Registered and Senior. The Plant Health Professional Register recognises plant health competencies in various workforces and offers CPD opportunities to show compliance with the GB Strategy for Plant Health and Biosecurity.

What use is the register?

  1. It acknowledges an individual’s competencies and helps signpost training and career development opportunities. ​
  2. It provides the Chief Plant Health Officers with information on plant health expertise in the UK, for speedy responses to disease outbreaks. ​
  3. Together this helps protect the UK and businesses from the harm that pests and disease can cause to plants. ​

In 2018, 82 people attended free workshops and reported a 55% increase in plant health and biosecurity competency. 

The PHPR has worked alongside the PHAS and the online eLearning module and one day entry level workshop will meet requirements for PHAS. The entry level training will be available in the next few months and applications are available now.

Adam Taylor, Taylors Bulbs and HTA President, then brought the day to a close, highlighting the extensive knowledge and passion that had been shared throughout the day, and highlighting the importance to share this throughout the industry, and ensure that biosecurity and plant health stays and the forefront of industry developments for the future.

Full footage from the conference is available for £15. For more information, please email events@hta.org.uk

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