Post-Brexit trade: a barren soil for seeds

Simon Ferrigno, interviewing Paolo Arrigo of Franchi Seeds of Italy, 21 January 2021.

Seeds of Italy is the UK importer of seeds from Franchi, the oldest family-run seed company in the world. They preserve old varieties renowned for taste; the company also deals with fine Italian foods and cosmetics. As for many other companies, the end of the Brexit transition period is causing no end of problems and costs.

With the company’s seeds a fixture in many Midlands garden centres, we decided to catch up with Paolo Arrigo, the founder and CEO of the company.

Mr Arrigo says “People never think of seeds. All you eat comes from seed… milk comes from seed indirectly as the grass the cow eats is from seed. It’s the biggest subject people never talk about”. He explains that the seed sector in Britain has changed. Before World War II, most companies bred their own, “but now over half of UK seed is imported, much from the European Union”.

The end of the transition has been a shock. Arrigo says “It is serious, I’m an importer who cannot import seeds”. He says all seed importers are talking, trying to understand the new rules. Defra consulted 12 seed companies: “the large brands, no specialists, none of the companies like us”. He finds this hard to believe: “This is the country of the first horticultural society and botanical gardens. Think Darwin. The country has a passion for horticulture. Hobby seeds, seed packets, restaurant growers, small growers, allotmenteers”.

What happened, Arrigo says, is that the government uploaded 5000 varieties from the EU seed authorisation list to the UK seed list based on that consultation. To register a new variety in future could cost £300. There are tens of thousands of varieties that were free before.

How will small and new companies manage this? Arrigo says “this skews the sector to the corporate big boys. But what about the local and specialist varieties, the regional, the artisan products? This is the same as might happen with food: hormone-fed beef, and so on”. Just one unregistered variety could see whole consignments refused.

The fear of the present situation is why Paolo Arrigo started campaigning for Remain in 2016. He realised that there was no local campaigning near the company base in Harrow.

He lists the items they now need to import seeds. An EORI number, to use the PEACH system, the Defra system that connects to CHIEF, the Customs and Excise system for horticulture. Then eDomero registration, an online system for applying for plant passports and other services. Then an application for Place of Destination, that permits customs inspection at the company warehouse instead of the Port of Entry. Except, Mr Arrigo says, there probably aren’t any customs agents in Harrow and they don’t know how long it might take for one to come and clear goods. Next, he says, they need plant passports. The EU uses these, and the seed industry likes them. They are “a track and trace system that works. They can keep track of diseases, say brown rugoze virus on tomatoes. We have to list every person we have supplied to. A bit heavy handed but necessary so we don’t spread diseases”.

Plant passports lead to phytosanitary certificates, which cost €35 a pop (£100 if exporting from the UK, which “rules out all mail order to the EU, even the big boys. Only large orders to garden centres make it worthwhile now really”). He continues “None of these were needed before as we were like one country with no borders”. And of course, Arrigo adds, “We need shipping agents”. Agents are essential to dealing with all the new paperwork and procedures. All of this has costs.

Arrigo says his business is less affected than some. Some ship 50 percent of their goods to the EU. He adds “It is not just people but plants that are losing their freedom of movement. Onions, leeks, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, chives, beans, peas, broad beans. Sunflower, garlic”. This is a problem, less trade means less work: “I’m a British business employing British people”. 

There’s another problem: “No British seed company can now send seeds to Northern Ireland, it is now more restrictive than sending to the EU”. For Northern Ireland, they need to send an EU plant passport, and “we can only issue UK ones”. Northern Ireland is effectively in the single market.

Paolo Arrigo says “I have had three orders returned to Italy from Calais so far. One was soaps from Tuscany, one was cosmetics”. Seeds of Italy also had problems on 11 pallets of seeds (€40,000-worth). These were due in December to beat the Brexit deadline, but Arrigo explains “it got collected by the shippers, Schenkers, then they saw queues of 53 hours at Calais Eurotunnel from Brexit, and then Covid border closures, so they sat on it, it was stuck in the Milan warehouse. We got them in eventually with another courier on December 31, finally delivered to us January 7”.

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He says hauliers are giving up on the UK, with the result that “even if goods can come in, there will be shortages and delays and increased costs. We had to pay €800 extra for our 11 pallets. Agents fees too”.

He continues “Covid increased seed demand 6000 per cent, but Brexit is adding to supply problems and will create shortages. There is loss of freedom of movement for goods, and this will increase in the UK post-transition. Brexit on top of the Covid crisis is suicide. Another year in transition might have led to a better deal. This deal is ambiguous, seeds are not clear. Defra are pulling their hair out”.

Arrigo says “The recent problems exposed since transition end for exporters and importers are severe and debilitating for small business. Only being in the Single Market and Customs Union will sort this out”. 

For the future, Arrigo cautions that “It is also going to reduce choice. China supplies in bulk, but there will be less choice. Just corporate seeds”. This means a loss of biodiversity: “94 percent of all heritage varieties have been lost in one century. Franchi have 220 varieties of the remaining heritage seeds”. He has worked with the Eden Project on a heritage seed project, and with the Slow Food Movement, as well as Vegan and Vegetarian groups (specifically Vegetarian Society Vegan Approved). “This is important for us”, he says, “we are environmental. Veganism is a big driver of seed heritage and protection”.

Small and Medium Sized Businesses (SMEs) like his, or those in travel and food are in trouble. “A business like ours can do well but we are struggling to get stock in. It is crazy. I’m not a big company to be able to have one person employed for Brexit red tape. SMEs are the backbone of the country, we employ lots of people and are a major part of the economy”.

Brexit means that Seeds of Italy are no longer shipping to EU countries or Northern Ireland. So much for Global Britain. For the Midlands, it means “higher prices, shortages, less specialist seed and more corporate mass produced varieties, as well as a loss of biodiversity”.

Arrigo concludes: “I have no choice but to run my business as best I can, highlighting the problems in my sector and working industry-wide with a view to putting pressure on the government“.

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