Plant Importation and Lacey Act Provisions (Hannon)

Tom Mitchell
Sun, 12 Oct 2008 03:04:21 PDT
Collecting plant material in the wild and trading it internationally  
is a vexed issue from both legal and ethical perspectives. I find it  
helpful to separate the two perspectives - what ought we do and what  
the law says we must do - when trying to figure out my own position.  
A third perspective - the pragmatic question what happens in the real  
world - further muddies the waters.

Of course, I have a vested interest - I collect seeds in the wild and  
would like to be able to exchange them with friends and sell them to  
customers internationally, including in the USA, ideally without  
breaking the law. This makes it terribly hard to remain objective.  
There are good arguments on both sides of the opinion divide and one  
must resist cherry-picking those that suit.

Ethically, the only serious objections to unregulated wild collecting  
that I have encountered are: (a) the danger of bringing about  
extinction of wild populations through over-collecting; (b) the risk  
of introducing invasive species and (c) the risk of inadvertently  
introducing diseases. There isn’t space to go into the reasons but,  
personally, I reject as totally specious arguments that genetic  
material ‘belongs’ to the temporary geopolitical entity in which it  
happens to be located at the moment it is collected.

These are all arguments for intelligent regulation, not arguments  
against the trading of plants. The difficulty with regulation is that  
the individuals appointed to do the regulating are usually inadequate  
to the task. In many developing countries no authority exists that is  
adequately resourced to regulate plant exports or, if it does, its  
officers are typically corrupt. If we were to insist that only  
exporters with a valid permit were allowed to export plants, what  
we’d in fact end up with is exporters capable of paying the largest  

At the import end, things are often no better. In Australia, for  
example, it is legal to import seeds of Helleborus x hybridus but  
illegal to import seeds of Helleborus orientalis. Go figure. The  
point though, is that there ain’t a customs officer on earth who  
could tell the difference between the two. So, again, if we insist  
that all plant material is inspected and ‘passed’, quantities of  
plant material that isn’t what it claims to be will enter the  
importing countries.

Ironically, those few people competent to regulate plant exports and  
imports with respect to the identity and conservation status of the  
plants in question are often the collectors themselves.

Which brings me to the legal perspective. Laws governing  
international trade are constructed by bureaucrats to be the least  
bad compromise among the wishes of powerful vested interests in the  
treating countries. One can feel pretty confident that the views of  
PBS members were not high on the list of priorities of the  
signatories to the Convention on Biological Diversity.

My attitude to these laws, therefore, is that they should be treated  
with a healthy degree of contempt. Anyone who finds this attitude  
shocking might ask him or herself whether he has ever broken the  
speed limit (illegally endangering life), taken a pinch of seed from  
someone else’s garden (theft), or failed to declare income on a tax  
return (tax evasion). Of course, we should aspire to influence our  
legislators to make better laws, but I’m not holding my breath.

In the end, what happens in the real world is a messy compromise.  
Most members of the PBS list want to grow plants that are native to  
other plants of the world. Those that want to grow only native plants  
should try living in a country that was under half a mile of ice a  
few thousand years ago.

Personally I advocate self-regulation. Gardeners, like hunters, make  
good conservationists. We want the habitats where our plants  
originated to be conserved. An anecdote illustrates my point. In May  
this year, I collected a small piece of Actaea spicata rhizome from a  
large colony growing by a roadside in Slovenia. I went back to the  
site last week in the hope of collecting seed. The place is now a car  
park. I was rather upset by this and not because I’d missed out on  
the seed I’d hoped to collect. The only surviving plant of this  
colony in the world is now in my garden, from whence, properly  
labeled and vegetatively propagated, it could eventually be re- 
introduced to the wild.

The flora of the Balkans is threatened by post-war reconstruction and  
by development as more countries accede to the European Union. These  
developments are warmly welcomed by most local people. The flora is  
not in the least threatened by my collecting activities, nor by the  
few other enthusiasts who bumble around the region in search of  
interesting plants.

> Message: 4
> Date: Fri, 10 Oct 2008 14:49:05 -0700
> From: Hannon <>
> Subject: Re: [pbs] Plant Importation and Lacey Act Provisions
> To: "Pacific Bulb Society" <>
> Message-ID:
> 	<>
> Content-Type: text/plain; charset=ISO-8859-1
> This and similar changes in US and international laws will probably  
> support
> a growing shift away from independent parties organizing the  
> importation of
> plants and toward a higher degree of organized exportation of  
> plants (cf.
> orchids) from countries of origin. In spite of some very real  
> drawbacks for
> us, this seems a good way to encourage native flora nurseries to  
> develop in
> foreign countries. Allowed to grow properly, this is to everyone's  
> benefit
> in the long run.
> This process can also gradually raise awareness about the local  
> benefits of
> protecting plants and animals and their habitats. Better that they  
> are seen
> and appreciated as an emerging specialized commodity than to be  
> destroyed
> because their value is never appreciated on any level that affords
> protection. On a more selfish note, without such home industry  
> growth there
> may be little hope of continuing viable and diverse imports of live  
> plants
> and seeds.
> Still many questions remain:
> *If or how to discern collected legally (wild origin) from obtained/ 
> grown
> legally in a nursery?
> *Who if anyone will retain "ownership" of the material in  
> perpetuity? If
> implemented, how does this carry to subsequent "owners" and subsequent
> generations of plants?
> *So-called benefit sharing-- practical limits and mechanisms here  
> are very
> poorly developed or unconsidered for small lots of seeds and plants.
> Underlying ethical concepts have been put forth with little serious  
> debate
> or counter-argument.
> *What provision will be made for these and future changes in law in
> countries that barely recognize such trade and have no legal  
> mechanism for
> accommodating any process for such minimal demand?
> *Can a supplier be certified or will each transaction be a stand alone
> export?
> Even with ostensible benefits, by facilitating better practices and  
> possibly
> clearer rules of operation, there remain many hurdles as difficult  
> or more
> challenging than those the laws attempt to remedy in the first place.
> With everything going on in global finance today, this dialogue has a
> familiar flavor.
> Dylan Hannon

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