Importation of plants and seeds into the US -- what's happening and what you can do

Michael Mace
Sat, 25 Jul 2009 16:06:51 PDT

I spent a bunch of time going through the proposed US government plan to
restrict plant and seed imports.  I'll give a summary below, and then some
thoughts on what we should do about it.  If you live outside the US, you can
probably ignore this message (unless you have a business exporting seeds or
bulbs).  But if you live in the US and you ever import seeds or bulbs, you
should understand what's happening, because it could have a big effect on
our hobby.

I apologize in advance for the long post.  I tried to simplify this as much
as I could, but it's a complicated subject.

Comments to the government are due October 21.  I give a link to the comment
site below.



Summary of what's happening

Today the US government has two basic categories of plants/seeds when it
comes to imports:  Things that are banned or restricted, and everything
else.  You can import any plant/seed that's not banned.  The government is
now going to add a third "not authorized" category:  plants (and seeds of
plants) that might turn out to be invasive or dangerous, and therefore will
be banned until we figure out more about them.

Plants will be added to the third list if there is "scientific evidence"
showing that they could be weeds or be carriers for pests.  Exactly what
scientific evidence will be required is unclear, and that's one of the big
uncertainties about the new rules.  Reports of weediness in other countries
will be a big factor, but there is also discussion of using "risk assessment
factors."  That's a list of questions that can be used to estimate risk --
for example, does the plant make a lot of seeds, can the seeds easily be
carried by the wind, does it survive drought, etc.  Because bulbs survive
drought, a lot of them might be classified as potentially invasive.  

The regulations could have a huge effect on our ability to grow rare plants
if the list of risky plants is written aggressively.  For example, if whole
genera of plants are added to the "not authorized" list, we could lose
access to many of the things we like to grow.  This isn't just a theoretical
possibility -- parts of Australia ban trade in all Oxalis and Moraea

Even if a plant is believed to be potentially invasive, it will not be
banned if it's already "established in cultivation" in the US.  The
definition of "established in cultivation" is the other thing that's really
unclear.  If someone offers it on the bulb exchange once, does that mean
it's established?

So there's a bit of a Catch-22 here.  If you can already easily buy a plant
or seed, it won't be banned even if it might be invasive.  But anything that
you can't get easily from domestic sources could be banned.  Since plant
collectors tend to focus on getting the rarest, most unusual plants they can
find, the regulations obviously could have a big effect on us.

The government's attitude toward all this

I was really interested when I saw Tony's comment:

"I had a meeting a couple of years ago with one of the scientists developing
this .... he admitted that it couldn't work, but he said that his superiors
were demanding it, based on the rants from radical groups"

There's a lot of evidence that the government staff is trying to steer a
middle ground between the various groups lobbying them.  Keep in mind that
Congress did enact a law early in the decade telling them to do more to
protect the country from invasive plants and pests.  So they're expected to
do something.  This new regulation has been in development for five years,
and the Secretary of Agriculture is on the record promising environmental
groups that it will be put in place.  So the chances of completely stopping
it are zero, in my opinion.

The critical question is how it'll be implemented.  What the government
proposes is a lot different from what the environmental groups asked for.
The demands (and I do mean demands -- you should read some of the letters)
from the environmental groups were to put all species not currently in the
US on a permanently banned list right now.  Some even wanted anything not
native banned, whether or not it's in cultivation.  Instead, what government
staff is doing is:

--Imports of things already in cultivation will not be banned.
--Only plants for which there is evidence of potential invasiveness will be
put on the "not authorized" list.
--Government staffers will decide when there is enough evidence to put a
plant on the list.  Just any evidence is not enough.
--Before a plant goes on the list, the public will get a chance to comment
and rebut the evidence online.
--Even after a plant goes on the list, the public can request a full
invasiveness review that could take it off the list.

So, once the regulations are enacted, there is going to be a big battle over
what goes on the list.  People like us will argue for a small, common-sense,
carefully selected list.  The ecology enthusiasts will argue for a large,
very comprehensive list.  The other side has a bunch of lawyers, lobbyists,
and paid scientists.  I personally don't want to assume that common sense
will win.

But the government does have a history of making compromises designed to
help private plant collectors and plant societies.  The most prominent is
the small lots of seeds program, which lets us import seeds without
phytosanitary inspections.  The permits are a pain in the neck, but a lot
better than a blanket requirement for phytos.  We're also allowed to bring
in up to 12 bulbs without a permit, although they do need a phyto (if I read
the regulations right).  So there is a history of government staffers trying
to accommodate us, when we make a logical argument that they can protect the
country without crushing our hobby.

The proposed regulations ask specifically for feedback from plant societies
and small nurseries.  So we're being invited to make comments and propose

Here's the argument I think we should make:

Private plant collectors are not the problem

The regulations are being driven by a rapid increase in imports of nursery
stock and bulk seed from overseas.  There are lots of stories about invasive
insects and plant diseases coming in on these shipments, and there's fear
that an invasive plant might be imported, distributed through nurseries, and
escape into the wild before anyone even knew what was happening.

Private plant collectors -- people like us -- create none of these risks.
We usually bring in seeds, which are much less likely to harbor pests or
diseases.  When we do exchange bulbs, we do so without soil, and inspect
them carefully for disease and pests.  We know what pests look like and we
kill them if they appear.  If a plant shows any signs of potential
invasiveness we cull it from our collections, or grow it only in ways so
that it can't escape.  We're very ecologically sensitive, and the last thing
we'd want to do is release a weed or pest.

The same thing goes for the small private nurseries that serve us.  Most of
them are more works of love than for-profit organizations.

There has never been a documented case of a weed or pest being introduced
into the wild in the US by private plant collectors.  Nursery chains, yes.
Big agriculture, yes.  But not private plant collectors.  There is no
scientific basis for wiping out our hobby.

I think we should make the points above, and then this is what we should ask

1. Exempt the small lots of seeds program from the "not authorized" list.

2.  Exempt shipments of up to 12 bulbs from the "not authorized" list, when
they are for private cultivation. 

3.  Exempt plant society seed and bulb exchanges from the "not authorized"
list, with the agreement that they educate their members about good
cultivation practices, and also report to the government cases in which an
imported plant appears to have invasive potential (ie, it tries to escape
into our gardens).  The government could set up a website for reporting this
information.  That makes us into part of the solution rather than part of
the problem.

What to do

The more comments to the government, the better.  

They have specifically asked for feedback from plant societies:

"The proposed program, with its accompanying restrictions on the importation
of plants, may also have an economic effect on plant societies. Membership
fees associated with these societies allow members to engage in the exchange
of seed or plant material. We are unable to classify the extent of potential
economic effects on such entities at this time; however, we welcome public
comment that would clarify our understanding on this matter."

So I encourage the PBS members to speak up.  The same thing goes for small
nurseries.  The government says you would still be able to sell whatever
you're selling today.  But how important is it that you be able to introduce
new things, and what do you do to make sure something is not invasive before
you introduce it?
You should also give your own personal feedback on the regulations.  Go to
this web address:…

Click on the blue title of the first document, titled "Importation of plants
for planting..."  In the window that opens, click on the text in the upper
right hand corner that says "submit comment."

The comment period ends October 21.

Note that commenters do not have to be US citizens. If you have a small
business that sells to US citizens, or a plant society that has US members,
your comments are still probably relevant to the regulators.

More information:

Public comments from 2004, when the government first started discussing the
new rules:…

A letter from the Florida Native Plant Society to the Secretary of
Agriculture calling for action against the "insidious and nearly invisible
enemy."  This is typical of the tone of the lobbying being done.…

Reply from the Department of Agriculture promising to enact the new rules.…

The Nature Conservancy lobbies for a restrictive "not approved" list
including "all imported plants and cuttings except those plants with
exceptional characteristics that indicate safe importation can continue."…

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