There is a new Plant Health Assurance Scheme (PHAS) in development which, if successful through its current pilot phase, will be launched in spring 2018. The aim of the scheme is to improve plant health management at nursery level. This will help mitigate against the risks of pests and diseases such as Xylella fastidiosa, and enable buyers to make confident, responsible sourcing choices.

We can never guarantee pest and disease free plants, but we can guarantee the best quality responsible management and traceability. An assurance scheme for plant health is not a new idea, however it has never really gained traction with the industry until Xylella fastidiosa came along.

Background

Fears about the draconian outbreak measures triggered by an outbreak of Xylella fastidiosa have focussed industry efforts on improving plant health management in the supply chain. For the first time, all professionals dealing with plants – landscapers, growers, designers, landscape architects and retailers – are brought into the regulations, with equal responsibility for where we get our plants from.

At an HTA grower meeting, hosted by Johnsons of Whixley and held the day after the HTA and APHA 2016 Biosecurity conference, we decided that the industry had to step up to the plate.

We should be growing more in the UK and we should be doing a much better job of managing plant health at nursery level. To improve plant health management, we decided that a standard should be created with a quality assurance system to drive improvements and spell out responsibilities. This could become a badged scheme with a logo and audit, which could then help plant buyers, designers and specifiers in making confident choices about sourcing plants.

Progress so far

In spring 2016 the team at Boningale Nurseries created a prototype system based on the existing ISO 9001. We then met with Professor Nicola Spence, to see if APHA might endorse such a scheme, thereby giving it credibility in the market place. Her response was enthusiastic and there was an offer of Government support for developing the scheme, provided we could show wide industry buy-in to the idea.

Lively discussions took place at a wider grower meeting last autumn. Strong consensus was achieved for the scheme to be developed and tested, provided it worked for all shapes and sizes of nurseries and didn’t create another expensive, time-consuming audit to go through. It should also be recognised alongside other schemes like BOPP so that we didn’t create multiple schemes and more audit fatigue.

At the start, a multi-stakeholder Steering Group was set up to drive the development phase during 2017, drafting the standard, supporting documents and an audit specification. Pilot audits with different types of nurseries have started and should be completed by the end of autumn. We are surveying growers to get a feel for initial interest in the scheme and an idea of costings.

Building the Standard

The scheme itself consists of four main areas: management; plant health controls; recognition and training; site housekeeping. As a starting point, each business should have a plant health policy. This may sound a bit obvious but it really helps to focus thinking on exactly what you are trying to achieve. Beneath this sits an analysis of the risks associated with different product lines, and plans for the higher risk categories.

Training and guidance will be developed

Risk management is a fairly new concept for people used to growing plants, and has never been a significant element in horticulture training. Therefore, we need to create training and support for this, alongside many other areas of the scheme. The pilot audits being done now will identify what training and guidance will be needed. The initial fact-finding visits carried out in January and February revealed stark differences in approaches to plant health at nurseries. It will be critical to the success of the scheme to make sure that staff have the tools and knowledge easily available to them.

What’s the incentive to join the scheme?

Plant health and biosecurity is ultimately everyone’s responsibility, but has to juggled alongside other competing business demands. On its own, the Plant Health Assurance Scheme is a very laudable initiative, but there will need to be a business incentive for it to work in the open market. The HTA lobbied hard and successfully to get compensation included in the new EU plant health policy, for growers forced to destroy stock infected by pest and/or disease.

There is no guarantee but this new assurance scheme may offer a vehicle for potential compensation. Scheme members could get a measure of business protection by demonstrating the highest standard of plant health management. If they are unfortunate and suffer an outbreak, they could then be eligible for compensation if they had to destroy stock. Discussions are ongoing with economists and growers to test the feasibility of this approach. Ultimately there will be some lobbying to do, to get UK Government to agree to a match-funding pot to make it worthwhile.

What about other assurance schemes?

There are other assurance schemes relevant to horticulture and therefore we are engaging as widely as possible on the plant health scheme to ensure that we are all aware of what each other is doing. This is proving a very useful exercise because we are learning from each other all the time. Good strong governance has come out as a vital factor in assurance schemes and we are looking at how to develop this.

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