Importing Bulbs and Seeds

Ellen Hornig
Mon, 26 Jan 2009 09:00:18 PST
Diane - it was an APHIS inspector who told me that about Czech phytos (a 
voice on the phone) - I have no independent information.  It was a response 
to my question about why plants coming in with a valid phyto needed to be 

At the risk of exhausting my welcome, I want to make some (ultimately) 
positive remarks about this question of regulating and inspecting plant 
imports.  I do have to say, first, that it appears the system doesn't 
function too well.  Incoming legal plant material appears to be going 
largely uninspected, despite the apparent fact that foreign export 
regulation (issuing of phytos) is at best an uneven process.  Incoming 
illegal imports probably largely go undetected, because the first line of 
defense - identifying a package that needs inspection - presumably depends 
on the US postal and Customs services doing their jobs with greater zeal 
than, say, Debbie's informant says they do.  And if incoming illegal imports 
all became legal via the following of existing regulations (remember, import 
permits are free, though phytos usually are not), the system would be even 
more overwhelmed than it is.

One tactic, which seems to be the currently preferred one, is to threaten 
people with large fines if they get caught.  My previous life as an 
economist leads me to observe that the expected cost of smuggling is 
measured by multiplying the probability of getting caught by the fine levied 
if one is caught.  Playing with some arbitrary numbers here, if the 
probability of getting caught is as high as 1%  (I'm guessing it's much 
lower) and the expected fine is $2000, the expected penalty for smuggling is 
(.01)(2000) = $20, which renders the smuggling of a single plant borderline 
not-worthwhile - but if the probability of getting caught is 0.1%, the 
expected cost is only $2 (versus whatever the perceived value of the 
smuggled material is).  A very high fine (say, $250,000) should definitely 
discourage small-time smuggling, but only if people know with certainty that 
it will be levied if they're caught - and from what I hear from the 
grapevine, penalties generally levied on individuals are much lower than 
that.  The only people who are discouraged from smuggling by POSSIBLE high 
fines are the same types who won't fly, viz, people who are so terrified by 
the low-probability high-cost outcome that they don't look beyond that to 
see that the activity is (alas in the case of plants) relatively safe.

The bottom line is that a positive, energetic, informative public education 
campaign is about your only rational line of defense when you're woefuly 
underfunded and understaffed.  It's far more likely to get the attention of 
a rational individual than is threatening them with high fines - it appeals 
to their better natures, it's cheap, and it makes clear for them why what 
they're doing is wrong.

And them's my thoughts this fine morning, and there I will end it.


Ellen Hornig
Seneca Hill Perennials
3712 County Route 57
Oswego NY 13126 USA
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