The UK horticulture industry is beseeching Westminster to repeal planned new border controls for plants

Nick Marston

Nick Marston, British Berry Growers chairman, says 100 million EU strawberry plants are imported into the UK each year

British fruit growers are urging the government to keep in place current post-Brexit checks for imported plants from the EU, and not implement planned new border controls from April.

Under current rules – in place for the last five years since the UK left the EU – imported plants are held at UK nurseries and farms in controlled conditions, and only those identified as high-risk for disease are checked by British government inspectors.

Yet under new rules scheduled to come into force on 30 April as part of the post-Brexit border regime, known as Border Target Operating Model (BTOM), the government intends to check 100 per cent of imported plants on arrival at UK border posts.

Most UK soft fruit, including strawberries and raspberries are imported as young plants. Meanwhile significant numbers of tomatoes, fruit trees and nursery plants also start life in European greenhouses.

UK growers are concerned that British border posts will not have the capacity or staff to cope with the sheer volume of imported plants arriving into the country. They believe this will cause logjams that could lead to plant material being damaged or destroyed, thus threatening UK fruit and veg production for the coming year.

The British soft fruit industry imports the great majority of its strawberry plants (some 100m per annum) for UK production from Europe (Holland, Belgium and Poland), according to Nick Marston, chairman of the British Berry Growers.

He told FPJ: “We, and the entire horticulture industry, have been expressing concern right the way through that however large a border facility you put in place, and however many lorry lanes there are leading to it, there are always delays at a hard border. It is an inevitable fact of life and it will cause a log jam.

“Delays for plant materials are critical. The quality of plant material, if held in a lorry, will deteriorate quickly. The facilities at border points may not be suitable for holding plants refrigerated or frozen for significant periods of time. And if lorries are opened and plants taken out, it does increase the risk of infection. So those are all concerns.”

A lorry load of strawberry plants is worth up to £100,000 pounds in value and all plants are grown to order, he added. “So if the lorry load of plants is lost, the grower can’t replace them. That is lost crop – which has five or six times the value of the plants that were in there.”

British growers would like to see the current regime continue, whereby plants are inspected on a risk basis once they arrive on farms, Marston said. ”It has been going on in this way for the last five without a problem, so it has been well tested.”

The NFU is lobbying the government on behalf of the entire UK horticulture sector to allow plants to bypass border control post checks with “place of destination” checks, while adopting a more risk-based approach to reduce the number of checks. 

Martin Emmett, the NFU’s horticulture and potatoes board chair, told The Guardian on 22 January: “There is a concern that border control points can pose an existential threat to horticultural businesses in this country.”

The government’s post-Brexit Border Target Operating Model, the implementation of which has been delayed five times, will also require European importers to provide health certificates for medium and high-risk animal and plant products from 31 January. Nearly all young plants are considered high risk.