PLANTS ARE IN MOVEMENT around the world at a faster clip, and in larger numbers, than ever before. For many of us, the excitement of learning, growing, and sharing new plants is one of gardening’s chief attractions. It follows that we need to take an active interest in the plants entering the United States and in their eventual interaction with existing agriculture, horticulture, and the natural environment. Depending on your viewpoint, these new plants are either welcome additions to gardens and the nursery trade, as well as sources of new knowledge and benefits, or they are possible interlopers or pest- and disease-carriers.
These sharply contrasting perspectives have given rise to contrasting approaches to regulating the entry of plants and germ plasm into our economy and ecology. Either you view the growing of new genera and species as part of the learning process, or you reject anything new until it has been proven absolutely safe. Whatever your opinion, you should be aware of how various regulatory agencies are reacting to the situation, for their decisions will determine how we garden.
Among the main governmental players are the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), which is responsible for protecting U.S. agricultural health, and its Plant Protection and Quarantine section (PPQ), which helps to oversee the import and export of plants and plant parts (seeds, bulbs, cuttings, budwood, tissue culture, etc.). In 1999, a Safeguarding Report requested by the USDA recommended consistent enforcement of the requirement that phytosanitary certificates accompany all imported seeds. After January 2002, seeds that had previously been admitted into the country without a phyto were suddenly unenterable. There immediately followed protests from organizations with seed exchanges and individuals wishing to acquire interesting seeds from offshore sources. In response, APHIS-PPQ has proposed a rule change to allow the importation of small packets of seed, in limited quantities, using an import permit instead of a phyto. The permitting system would continue to provide APHIS-PPQ with information about seeds entering the United States, while allowing seed buyers and society exchanges easier access to Canadian and overseas markets and donors. The careful oversight of seed exchanges will act as a filter to prevent the entry of pests, diseases, and noxious weeds, while permitting those with horticultural expertise access to potentially important new plants. It will be another year or two, however, before the new system is in place.
Joyce Fingerut explains why gardeners need to be familiar with what regulatory agencies are doing
At the same time, Q37, the set of national regulations governing the importation of plants and plant parts, is being reviewed, revamped, and updated to better reflect concerns about imported plants that could adversely affect agriculture or the environment. There is wide agreement over the need to stop problems before they enter our system, and at the regulatory level, current thinking leans toward “clean stock programs”: certification, to U.S. standards, of offshore nurseries.
Similar actions are being taken by the North American Plant Protection Organization (NAPPO), the regional arm of the International Plant Protection Convention (under the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization). It coordinates efforts among Canada, the United States, and Mexico to protect their plant resources while also facilitating regional trade, and its standards reflect the compromises and accommodations that these countries have reached over the years in balancing internal protections with international trade. Currently, NAPPO is writing the standards for the International Movement of Plants for Planting and Propagation. As at APHIS, point-of-origin programs are being considered as part of their approach.
For the majority of gardeners, nonregulatory guidelines may prove to be the most relevant and most palatable—and hence most effective—solutions. The codes of best practices, arising from workshops at the Missouri Botanic Garden, offer standards of conduct designed to curb the use and distribution of invasive plants through voluntary self-regulation. There are separate (but similar) codes for government, nursery professionals, the gardening public, landscape architects, and botanic gardens and arboreta.
All this intersecting regulatory activity can seem dry and confusing, but the issues it touches on are real ones and, as gardeners, we ignore it at our peril. It all boils down to our being active, educated, watchful, responsible, and responsive gardeners willing to work to keep horticulture, the environment, and the gardening public as a healthy whole. H