The Future of Plant Hunting?

Crug Farm exhibit - Chelsea 2014  All the plants were grown from seed collected by them in the wild
Crug Farm exhibit – Chelsea 2014
All the plants were grown from seed collected by them in the wild

I started to write this blog post by saying that politics and policy have little impact on my gardening world but as soon as I wrote those words I realised what a nonsense they are.  Of course politics and policy have an impact.  You only have to look at the rhetoric you encounter when you mention peat and using it in the garden to realise that even when we potter in our gardens we can’t escape Whitehall, the EU or campaign groups.

In fact horticulture seems to have featured a lot in the News recently with the controversial Garden Bridge in London and Boris Johnson’s controversial ping-pong approach to funding and the reduction of funding for Kew Gardens, one of the most revered botanical gardens in the world.  Last year there was concern about proposed EU legislation that had the potential to reduce the range of seed available to gardeners by insisting that any plant distributors wanted to sell seed  had to have the seed registered, at no small cost.  This would obviously significantly impact on the growing number of small seed distributors in this country and it seems that the vehemence of the UK and Dutch gardening world may be stopped or delayed this legislation coming into force.


This week I learnt about the The Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits Arising from their Utilisation (Nagoya Protocol).  At my local HPS meeting Bob Brown of Cotswold Garden Flowers was telling us about the protocol which has arisen out of the  UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) which all countries, except the US, have signed up to, ratified in the UK in 1994 (I’m not 100% sure if it is indeed all countries). The Convention was drawn up to protect biodiversity and to ensure sustainable use of genetic resources.  Under it the native plants (or animals, insects, etc – for the purposes of this post I will use the term plants) of a country are that country’s property, the country has sovereign rights, and this means that any commercial benefits deriving from them are the property of that country. You can see the logic behind this if you consider the possible financial gains from the production of a native plant should it be discovered to have some amazing medicinal use. The Convention has been hard to enforce and so the Protocol has been agreed with the legislation coming into force in the UK in October 2014.  Under the Protocol you need to have the country’s government’s permission to sell/benefit from the use of that country’s plants.
When you start to really think about this the ramifications have the potential to be hugely significant to a mere amateur gardener such as myself.  In recent years I have bought wild collected seeds from an Eastern European seed collector and I have bought plants from a number of nursery men/plant hunters which have presumably be grown from wild collected seed.  The UK’s floral diversity can be directly attributable to centuries of plant collectors exploring the world, our native flora has been diluted for so long it is hard to say what is actually a native UK plant.
Chatting on twitter with some plant hunters and a representative of Plant Heritage it seems that the consequences of the Protocol in the UK are not yet clear.  There are useful summaries on the RHS website and on the Plant Heritage blog.  Current expectation is that the enforcement of the protocol will be dealt with by the National Measurements Office (I didn’t know we had such a body) and it is expected that there will be a light touch.  However, it is possible that if you plan to sell non-native plants you will need to be able to show that they were available commercially prior to October 2014 and if not you will need to have, or be able to refer to, the documentation and records to show that the plant’s native government gave permission for the plant material to be collected.
For me this seems to herald a curtailing in the not too distant future of the tradition of plant hunting which some of us gardeners follow vicariously savouring the results with those special acquisitions. It also means that some overseas suppliers may have to curtail their export of native plant seed outside their country if they are relying on collecting it in the wild.  As to the impact on the various seed exchanges which include wild collected seed – well the jury is well and truly out on that one.
During my twitter conversation it was even muted that as the Protocol stipulates that you cannot share information about the native plants then this could be interpreted to mean that anyone delivering a talk on a plant hunting trip would be in breach of the protocol.  How on earth would anyone police such a rule, it seems completely unenforceable to me!?
It will be interesting to watch the horticultural world to see if there are indeed the repercussions that some are worried about. If there are then we may find that the diversity of plants we have access to stops – would this be such a bad thing, I really don’t know but it makes for an interesting conversation when you get some passionate plants people together.

13 Comments Add yours

  1. hughcassidy says:

    A well written and informative piece Helen, we’ll be watching closely to see what comes of these changes …

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi Hugh
      Thanks, I find it fascinating

  2. Joe Owens says:

    Helen – I am glad I do not have to deal with such drama in my gardening. All I am waiting on is the weather to warm so I can swap out my snow scraping blade with my garden roto-tiller and turn some dirt. I have a Jiffy Greenhouse 72 cell to start tomatoes and some lily seeds.

  3. Amy says:

    Very perturbing, I think! Sometimes a species is only saved because someone has spirited out some seeds (or animals, in the case of Pere David’s deer) before extinction in the main population occured. Some wild plant populations are extremely limited in range…

  4. I wasn’t aware of this, thanks for posting. The justice in the basic idea seems to make sense, but you do have to wonder about the implementation.

  5. Roger Brook says:

    Let’s hope that the touch of the dead hand of bureaucracy is indeed a light one!
    One can see that there are good reason’s for a country to protect its genetic resources in the light of ruthless exploitation by for example ‘big pharma’ and in that sense the protocol is worthy. (I imagine there are huge issues of which country has ‘rights’ to specific plants that have a wide international natural occurrence).
    As you say Helen, many plants that have been lost in their native habitats have been conserved by gardeners.
    Heaven forbid that there should be restrictions on movement of plants in our own countries because they were imported in the past!

  6. Brian Skeys says:

    Some of these protocols/rules introduced with the best of intentions usually seem to have huge ramifications that the originators never seem to think about. I presume it could affect the HPS & RHS seed schemes. Life becomes more complicated!

  7. It’s a fascinating subject, and the ramifications are clearly complex – but then, has there ever been a law which hasn’t had unintended consequences!

  8. donna213 says:

    Very good and informative post, Helen. I have to agree with you on your points of enforcement and also the regulations are getting dizzying. I do understand the desire to claim a plant for medicinal purpose, but what about native plant dispersal by natural means? I find all this regulation a bit unnatural. Thanks for your post.
    Donna at GWGT.

  9. Cathy says:

    Thanks for sharing this with us, Helen – and from the comments above it is clear just how rational gardeners at our level seem to be, willing and able to appreciate all arguments on the concepts

  10. Cathy says:

    Great post Helen – and yes, this issue/legislation cuts to the heart of what has made British gardening so good and so exciting for over 3 centuries. It’s very sobering, and I feel so out of touch with what’s actually going on. Thanks for keeping me updated. Lets hope there will be a ‘pull back from the brink’ due to informed pressure group activity, as there has been in similar situations recently? Being a part of the EEC has advantages, but there will always be issues over special cases, and this is one.

  11. Diana Studer says:

    speaking from South Africa, and having just blogged about the ‘Jersey’ lily.
    It is called Jersey because a ship laden with our bulbs once washed up on the island.
    How nice if South Africa would get some revenue (like a copyright fee?) for all the plants we have gifted to horticulture worldwide. That money could go into conservation, skills and jobs.
    When I do Wildflower Wednesday posts for my garden it fascinates me to explore where my foreign plants come from. Lemon verbena from South America and and and.

    Not so different from suddenly everyone should eat Goji berries. Where do they come from? Is it sustainable? What about the local people who no longer afford to eat quinoa? What about broken links in the ecosystem?

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Exactly Diana
      Once you start looking into it the whole thing is just so complicated and interwoven.

Please feel free to leave comments as its always lovely to get feedback. I try to respond to comments as much as possible but sometimes life and work get in the way but I will do my best to respond especially if your comment is a question.

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