Will blue daffodils soon be unaffordable?

When I was a child, there was a retired Major living in the same Kentish village. His passion was breeding plants, primula polyanthus to be specific, in his greenhouse. 

Over the years, we marvelled at the varieties and combinations of colours he produced. He was a hobbyist, selling a few of his original plants at the church fete. Nowadays I realise that plant-breeding enterprises can be big international businesses. The cost of breeding and marketing new varieties is considerable and the intellectual property rights (IPR) need to be protected from competitors by either patents or plant variety rights (PVR).

The difference between IPR and PVR is explained on the website of Plants for Europe, a Sussex-based horticultural firm that specialises in advising plant breeders on their rights. 

They illustrate the limitations of PVR with the example of a blue daffodil, maybe developed by a plant-breeder over a number of years with much skill, cost and love. PVR will protect against competitors obtaining bulbs of that particular variety and propagating and selling them, perhaps at reduced prices.

But canny competitors can make small changes to the blue daffodil, say a larger trumpet or more frills to the petals, and then undercut the first plant breeder. This is legal provided the competitor can prove that the new blue daffodils are not essentially derived varieties (EDVs) using the exact genes or processes of the pioneer breeder. So PVR provides protection from EDVs, but does not really protect the position of the first breeder.

Much stronger protection is obtained by registering a patent, preferably in as many countries as are likely to have a market for the new plant variety. Mostly it is only the big international agricultural companies that can afford such patents which tend to be for new varieties of food crops. 

These big companies would argue for their IP rights and pay large sums of money for legal protection because, as in the pharma industry, such exclusive rights in the market incentivise and pay for the research.

On the other side of the argument, and against monopolies, are those that say that such strong IP protection diminishes diversity. The horticultural traders need to bring variety to plant markets with some new varieties of blooms seen each year, maybe photogenically displayed at Chelsea and then in the next season marketed at nurseries all over the country. The breeders of these would just be protected by the less expensive PVR. 

But PVR is about to become expensive. The system is EU-wide. But after Brexit PVR acquired in Great Britain will not be valid in the EU. The solution is to use the services of companies like Plants for Europe which has engaged a Dutch company to handle all IPR needs for plant exporters. This will inevitably add to the cost of GB plants in Continental nurseries and probably restrict the British horticultural trade.

Conversely, exporters from the EU to GB may decide that the extra cost of acquiring a GB PVR is just not worth it. So customers here will lose out on the next blue daffodil.

These plant regulations apply to Great Britain – and GB has to be on the labels. Northern Ireland will be under a different set of regulation, with NI on the labels.

In trying to tot up the cost of Brexit to the horticultural sector, it should be noted that for plants most of the extra costs are to be delayed by a year. The Government website states that it will not fully apply to imports from the EU to Great Britain until the end of the phased import process in March 2022.   

On that website, there is a comprehensive list of which plants are regulated, which are regulated and notifiable, and which are prohibited. Some of these pre-date Brexit as scientists have battled to save trees beset with infection. EU regulations 2016/2031 on plant health were mostly taken into UK legislation in 2020.

A current pest, xylella, has destroyed olive trees in some parts of the Mediterranean:

Xylella can also lurk in lavender and rosemary. Traditionally the pots of these that you can buy in the local nursery come from fully-certified suppliers on the continent. Anticipating the traffic delays post-Brexit, some plant traders stocked up for the start of 2021, but as these stocks run out new stock will have to be British-grown. Look for job adverts for potting-up herbs. 

A Kent-based wholesale plant-trader, Richard McKenna of Provender Nurseries, is quoted in the RHS Garden magazine as saying:

“Next year, I think plants may be significantly more expensive. We know the cost of plant passports, phytosanitary inspection and customs declarations, but we do not know how much the extra time and transport will cost”. 

So maybe post-Brexit, avid British gardeners will just have to expect less variety in the local nurseries, or be prepared to pay more for the imports. The alternative is to retreat to the greenhouse and take up a hobby breeding a new variety of blue daffodils, with a larger trumpet than the Dutch produce.

Daffodils photoshopped with blue trumpets

One also has to wonder how the UK border force will enforce the phytosanitary regulations in 2022 at the Channel Tunnel, where many tourists might be carrying apples or tomatoes in their cars for a picnic. According to the rules these are “regulated and notifiable” imports from “third countries” which is defined as any country that is not GB.