Motives and incentives for importing

Ellen Hornig
Wed, 28 Jan 2009 06:29:38 PST
I like to think I do my best thinking in the shower, so here I am, clean and 
refreshed, with the following insights:

(1) There are roughly three categories of plant/seed importers: Businesses 
who import for resale (large quantities), businesses who import for 
stock/propagation (small quantities), and private parties who import for 
their own use. (small quantities).

(2) the ones who probably care least about bringing in hidden pests, 
viruses, etc are the first (OK, shoot me, but I bet it's true).  They are 
rewholesaling (think cheap bulbs, bareroot perennials, etc) to mass 
merchandisers and to big growers who are going to have a hard time proving 
anything when the damage is discovered 6 months later.  Nurseries who bring 
in material for propagation, and private individuals (sophisticated 
gardeners and plant collectors) are the most likely to be paying attention 
to how their plants develop, and the most likely to destroy material that 
shows any signs of disease, because they have every good reason not to want 
it to spread into their other stock.

(3) I am guessing that APHIS spends most of its time inspecting the "large 
import" category, because that's where the money is, and money isn't going 
to sit around idly if its imports sit around for a month before being 
inspected.  This is appropriate but not, in my opinion, because it's where 
the money is, but because it's where the pests are, especially if, as Iain 
relates, the Dutch are so overriden with pests that they're farming growing 
operations out to the Chinese, who, according to my ag inspector, are the 
source of most of the baddies coming in.

(4) Problem is, the second two categories don't enjoy priority treatment 
(again, guessing), and bad things happen to good plants while they wait. All 
the stories that kick around amongst friends and peers have to do with this 
category, and they add up to delays, spoilage, and inquiries or complaints 
being met either with indifference or, worst case, with the sort of 
shut-up-or-we'll-blow-you-out-of-the-water hostility with which messengers 
of bad news seem occasionally to be greeted.

(5) A corollary: educating scofflaws properly, so that they get their import 
permits and use the system, isn't going to help an already overloaded 
system, and the numbers of disgruntled small importers will increase, the 
flow of stories such as we are all joyfully sharing will increase, and if 
history is a guide, the campaign of terror will kick into high gear (i.e. 
more threats of dire consequences substituted for a functioning system for 
small importers).

(6) Second corollary: the system would REALLY like to chase small users out. 
This is certainly what many of us think is the bottom line here right now: 
just go away.  There's a reason why I'm growing more and more US natives - 
we haven't gotten around to regulating those much - yet.

My thoughts as a former economist: user fees (to pay for the inspection 
service) will help.  The big guys are the least able to evade the system, 
and what they're importing can hardly be deemed essential to the national 
security, so why shouldn't they pick up a percentage of the inspection costs 
proportional to their usage of the system?  Of course it will have to be 
built into the retail price of the material, and of course this will result 
in smaller sales.  This is the same reasoning that leads us to tax polluters 
(I wish!) and let them build those taxes into the prices of their products: 
it's just internalizing costs that were formerly kept as externalities and 
born by the public.  There is no argument I can think of that supports the 
public subsidizatition of plant imports, and as I said above, the big guys 
would have a lot of trouble hiding their imports.  I don't think a genuine 
user fee falls afoul of trade regulations - but - it may.  Bill, do you 

I think there's a general feeling that user fees will drive small users back 
into the illegal market, but I rather doubt this is the case IF small users 
face proportionally small fees (I don't think $25-35 per shipment is 
unbearable for a truly small shipment) and IF their shipments are handled 
fairly and in a timely manner.  I really do believe that most people would 
prefer to do things legally if they could be sure of fair treatment.  It is 
clear that under the present system they do NOT believe they get fair 

Bottom line, for me, is that a system that treats all users fairly will be 
used by most people, and you can't drive yourself crazy trying to catch the 
rest, any more than you can get frantic about the small percentage of 
welfare recipients who really do refuse to work.  Most of them want to work, 
and most of us want to be legal.  And I bet we'd even be willing to pay for 



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

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