David I. Theodoropoulos, Las Sombras Biological
Preserve, Box 337, La Honda, CA 94020-0337 USA
The following are my comments on Docket No. 03-069-1.
I believe that the USDA is seriously overreacting and overstepping with this proposal. While we all wish to minimize the entry of new pests into the United States, we must recognize that the free flow of a wide variety of plant materials is essential to our continued economic health and to national security. The regular importation of seeds and propagative materials by individuals, plant societies, botanic gardens, and commercial concerns creates a vast, decentralized network of maintained ex situ biological diversity which may be drawn upon in the case of interrupted access by uncooperative or unfriendly countries. This vast, decentralized network of maintained ex situ biodiversity should be considered of great strategic importance to the United States, and therefore should be encouraged and supported by government agencies as a means of maintaining our economic health and our leadership in the world. We need look no further than the devastating strategic consequences of the interruption of natural rubber supplies during WWII, or the interruption of supplies of a scarce plant gum (Astragalus) important in key industries that occurred after the revolution in Iran, to highlight the importance to national security of maintaining a widespread, decentralized network of maintained ex situ biological diversity. Such free flow of living plant materials is essential to our national security, and limiting such free flow will place the United States at great risk.
We should take the decentralized information network of the internet as a model to emulate. The DNA in the genetic make-up of living organisms has been likened to information, and the Earth's biological diversity has been called a great library. If we look to the internet as a model for the proper handling of information, no one would deny that there is on rare occasions harmful information distributed through the internet. Yet most believe that the increased communication, education, and greatly increased trade promoted by the internet has led to remarkable economic benefits, as well as helping to promote the spread of freedom and democracy. If the Department believes that the internet has made the world a safer and more productive place, then the Department should help to create a similar model to promote the flow of biological "information" - seeds and plants.
Yes, we all want to minimize movement of known pests, but have to accept that this will happen on occasion, and new pests will evolve, in spite of our best efforts. In the interests of continued economic health and security, a certain amount of risk must be accepted. For example, thousands of people die or are injured each year in automobile accidents, or from adverse reactions from prescription drugs, but we accept that the advantages to society from medicine and automobiles are such that a certain amount of harm is acceptable.
Take a moment and imagine the economic losses if the internet had not been released to the public, or if every web page or every e-mail had to undergo "risk assessment" before entering the information-stream. Certainly there have been, among the millions sent or posted, e-mails or websites of criminal intent, yet most recognize that these are an unavoidable and minor consequence compared with the enormous benefits of a free, decentralized, and uncontrolled information network.
Then imagine for a moment the devastating economic losses that would occur if the internet were shut down or severely limited. This is what the USDA is proposing to do to the nation's "biological internet" - shutting down and severely limiting the existing, decentralized, free-flowing network of ex situ biological diversity.
Imagine what would be the fate of the careers of any policy makers who attempted to place a similar set of restrictions on the internet.
In the "Summary" the USDA states:
"Under the current regulations, all plants for planting are allowed to enter the United States if they are accompanied by a phytosanitary certificate and if they are inspected and found to be free of plant pests, unless their importation is specifically prohibited or further restricted by the regulations."
This is completely adequate to provide a reasonable, high level of protection from imported pests and weeds. In fact, the requirement of a phytosanitary certificate is already overkill for small shipments not in media, and clean seeds - these are easily inspected on arrival - in fact I would have more confidence in an "on arrival" inspection by competent USDA inspectors rather than a phytosanitary certificate issued by possibly less well-trained foreign inspectors. In the interests of promoting the beneficial free flow of living plant materials, and reaping the considerable economic and strategic benefits that result from such free flow, this phytosanitary requirement should be dropped, and we should return to the old system of "on arrival" inspection, which worked well for many decades.
If the Department is being overwhelmed by the volume of imports, federal funding for inspections should be increased as a matter of highest priority. The economic and strategic benefits of numerous diverse small shipments entering the U.S. are too great to allow the under funding of the Department in this regard to drive an attempt to decrease such shipments.
Under the section "Problems for the Regulations Posed by Recent Trends in the Importation of Plants for Planting" the information provided clearly indicates that the increased risk comes from the importation of large quantities of established material. Yet the intent of the proposed changes indicates an intent to require risk assessment for those species currently being imported in only small quantities, while those currently being imported in large ("significant") quantities would be considered "presumed to be safe" - this is an alarming fault of logic. Certainly, Pelargoniums (one of the most widely-grown ornamentals, and imported in "significant" quantities) would have fallen into the "presumed to be safe" category not requiring risk assessment, yet the incident of the Ralstonia-infected Pelargoniums is presented as supporting the proposed changes. Nothing in the proposed changes would have prevented the accidental importation of the Ralstonia-infected Pelargoniums.
Several of those who have already commented on this docket have mentioned this incident as justification for support of the changes proposed in the docket, yet this incident is actually a powerful argument against the proposed changes.
Sudden Oak Death was mentioned in a comment - again, if this pathogen did indeed originate from imported stock (duly inspected and with phytosanitary certificate), nothing in the proposed changes would have prevented its entry, and no risk assessment could possibly have predicted the outcome - a symptomless microbe in one species having effects on another, unrelated species. In addition, normal rapid microbial evolution will insure that new pathogens will arise even in the absence of any movement of hosts. We must recognize that such unpredictable events will occur no matter what system is in place.
One comment on the docket gave the example of illegal weedy aquatic plants being sold on the internet as justification supporting the docket. Again, if these plants are already prohibited, nothing in the proposed changes would affect the situation, and again, increased efficient well-trained inspectors at ports of entry under the current regulations would be much more helpful.
The statement on page 71739:
"Develop a strategy of quarantine development tied to pest risk potential that is reasonable, enforceable, and transparent"
is entirely at odds with the intent to:
"Consider adopting a modified "clean list" approach for propagative material, specifying what is permissible subsequent to risk assessment, rather than the current "dirty list" approach that prohibits or restricts specific articles only (recommendation E-46)"
because a "clean list" approach is entirely unreasonable, as is "risk assessment" because of the unknown and unpredictable nature of the problem as outlined. The importation of only stock free from possible pests that may be "rare, small in size, borne within the plant, an asymptomatic plant pathogen, or not yet recognized and regulated as a quarantine pest" is completely unenforceable, particularly considering "asymptomatic plant pathogens." This is absurd in the extreme. It is impossible to prevent all risk from unknown, unpredictable, and unforeseeable events.
Merely because a recommendation has been made at one time, based on faulty and inadequate information, does not mean that the Department is mandated to adopt that recommendation, regardless of the economic and strategic consequences - it is time for the Department to recognize and own up to the fact that some of the recommendations it has received are unreasonable, unworkable, unfounded, and inappropriate. Does the Department have no mechanism for discarding unworkable ideas, or is the Department mechanistically locked into following every idea proposed, even if it leads right over a cliff?
Under "Collecting Data on the Current Importation of Taxa of Plants for Planting" the Department asks:
1. Are there any sources other than those listed above from which we should solicit or obtain data?
2. What should we do to ensure that the data we receive accurately reflect actual importations of plants for planting?
3. What are the taxa or types of plants for planting for which obtaining accurate data might be especially difficult?
None of this data is necessary - the Department should put its resources into well-trained inspectors on the ground at ports of entry. The example noted above, of the Pelargonium which would clearly have fallen into the category of a plant "already being imported in significant amounts", should demonstrate that obtaining lists of species and the quantities being imported will not protect us from pests. In fact, biological realities would indicate that those being imported in small quantities are the least risk - these small quantities are the most easily inspected, and the wide variety of species lessens the chances that they carry pests of concern because of the genetic distance from major crops. Large-scale importations of commodities pose the greatest risk to U.S. agriculture because of the difficulties of inspection, and the relatedness to our own crops.
"Establishing a New Category for Certain Taxa of Plants for Planting That Would Be Excluded From Importation Pending Risk Evaluation and Approval"
It is dangerously inappropriate to adopt a "guilty until proven innocent" policy towards the biological diversity of the earth - our nation needs ready access to this biodiversity in order to remain economically healthy and strategically safe. We need to increase the number of species being maintained within our borders, not place roadblocks in front of the "biological internet" that is safeguarding our nation's strategic access to biodiversity. Again, this is entirely unnecessary, counterproductive, and would be an irresponsible misuse of the Department's limited resources. If there is evidence of risk relating to a specific taxon, existing categories suffice to restrict or prevent importation. There is no need to burden the Department with unneeded tasks that will misdirect scarce resources into ineffective "busywork". The USDA must work aggressively to streamline processes to deal with the ongoing and inevitable process of globalization. The department must not hamstring itself by creating enormous new burdens for its staff, particularly when there are even now not enough inspectors on the ground. The Department should be aggressively pursuing the federal funds it needs to do the job it already has, in the way that has proven effective over the decades - qualified inspectors on the ground.
The "first option" described is absolutely unworkable, and the Department makes it clear that it does not have the resources to implement it, and further, the detailed knowledge of the earth's biological diversity that would be required simply does not exist. If we applied the Pentagon's budget to an examination of the earth's biodiversity, we might have the information needed within a hundred years. The "first option" is absurd in the extreme.
The "second option" described, while less impossible and unworkable, is still unacceptable. If evidence exists that an importation could cause harm, then existing categories and regulations should be employed. It is dubious whether "the second option could be implemented with the resources presently available", but in any case, the strategic and economic advantages of the United States' continued free access to important biological resources are so great that we cannot allow those resources to be excluded on slender evidence merely for the convenience of USDA staff. This category should only be created with serious limitations - a species should only be placed in this category on the presentation of compelling evidence, and only for a temporary period to allow the department to conduct the usual "rule and comment" period, and to conduct a risk assessment. Ninety days should be the absolute maximum allowed for a taxon to remain in this category.
We invite responses to the following questions in particular on the
"excluded pending risk evaluation and approval" category we are
1. How would each of the two options for adding taxa of plants for
planting to this category affect the sectors of the horticultural
industry that propagate and sell imported plants for planting? Which
option would disrupt current trade in plants for planting the least?
It is inappropriate for the department to present only these two options - the third option is to not establish the "Third Category" at all. The first option is clearly absurd, unworkable, and destructive to the strategic and economic interests of the United States. It would be extremely costly to the horticulture industry and highly disruptive to trade. The second option is merely egregious and destructive to the strategic and economic interests of the United States. It, too, will be extremely costly to the horticulture industry and disruptive to trade. Merely because the second option is less harmful than the first option does not make it workable or desirable.
2. If the first option were implemented, what should constitute a
"significant" amount for taxa of plants for planting that are already
The first option absolutely must not be implemented - this is simply not workable. There will be far-reaching consequences if the first option is implemented, and could easily lead to a congressional inquiry into the Department.
3. If the second option were implemented, what sources of
information and what minimum criteria should be used to determine
whether a specific taxon should be excluded pending risk evaluation and
The only acceptable sources should be peer-reviewed scientific literature. The minimum criterion should be experimentally-demonstrated harm. The other sources, "government reports, professional organizations, and international databases" are all notoriously unreliable, as witness the various lists of "invasive species" and "weeds" which include species on the basis of single anecdotal reports. These are unacceptable as a basis for formulating public policy. Only experimentally-demonstrated harm, using fully operational terms, can be accepted.
4. Should taxa of plants for planting imported from different
regions be considered separate regulated articles for the purposes of
this category? For example, if a taxon is currently being imported in
significant quantities from Africa but has never been imported from
Asia, should imports of this taxon from Asia be excluded pending risk evaluation and approval?
No. This portion of the proposal fails the test of reasonableness.
We invite responses to the following questions in particular on the
clean stock programs we are considering:
1. Is it feasible to use this type of program in producing large
volumes of taxa of plants for planting other than those that are
currently exported to the United States under the programs in our
regulations? What additional costs might be associated with growing
other taxa of plants for planting under this type of program? What
benefits might be associated with implementing such a program?
No, this is not feasible except for the largest growers. The costs associated with this would be tremendous, and not commensurate with the advantages gained in reducing pest risk. Where will the Department find the staff and resources to implement and monitor such a program? Where will growers find the staff and resources to comply with the excessive record keeping proposed? Will this constitute an interference with the "organic" sector which is prohibited from the pesticide use that will be required? The Department fails to ask "what harm might be associated with implementing such a program?" - serious economic and strategic harm would result from limiting the United States' access to biodiversity, harm would occur through the concentration of this access into the hands of a few, and biological harm will occur from the genetic bottlenecks associated with such a program.
2. What specific aspects of these programs could prove problematic
or would require detailed attention?
What part would not be problematic? The costs associated with this will seriously reduce the biodiversity accessible to the United States.
3. How could a clean stock program be designed to ensure that
quarantine pests are not inadvertently brought to the United States
along with plants for planting?
There is no way to insure that pests are not inadvertently brought in to the United States - an asymptomatic microbe will always be a possibility.
4. Are there any foreign clean stock programs not mentioned in our
regulations that could serve as models for a general clean stock
No clean stock program should be implemented. Clean stock programs should be strictly voluntary, educational programs, not imposed programs.
We invite responses to the following questions in particular on the
best management practices program we are considering:
1. As noted above, draft codes of conduct that could form the core
of a best management practices program already exist. Are these codes a
feasible starting point from which to develop a best management
The code mentioned in the docket as an example, the "Saint Louis Declaration, a product of the Workshop on Linking Ecology and Horticulture to Prevent Plant Invasion held in St. Louis, Missouri, in December 2000" is not credible - first, it was held in the Monsanto center at the Missouri Botanic Gardens - hardly appropriate, and second, I have spoken with several participants, both from industry and academia, who expressed concerns about the non-objective, non-neutral nature of the proceedings; they felt that the "Declaration" was essentially a "done deal" prepared in largely in advance and that the workshop was merely a facade to legitimize the declaration. A number of participants in the early stages who expressed dissent with portions of the agenda were purposely excluded from later stages. Invasion biology itself has depended on anecdote and the suppression of contrary data to achieve its influence.
2. Do other applicable best management practices programs exist?
Which of these is the best one, and why? What additional costs might be
associated with growing plants for planting under this type of program?
What benefits might be associated with implementing such a program?
3. What existing industry practices should be incorporated into
4. What permit conditions would help to reduce the risk that
quarantine pests associated with plants for planting imported in
limited quantities for testing could become established, or that the
plants for planting themselves, if the taxon proves to be invasive,
could become established?
5. What would be the best way to identify and assess any
environmental risks that might be associated with the importation of
plants for planting under a best management practices program?
These further questions indicate that the Department is already committed to such programs. What evidence does the Department have that such a system is the best way to reduce risk? What evidence does the Department have that such programs would not prove an unnecessary burden and hindrance of the strategically-important free flow of living plant materials which is necessary for maintaining our national security? What evidence does the Department have that this will not merely further the centralization, bottle-necking, and control of the "biological internet" into corporate hands? Or is this the intent?
The consensus of history is that the collapse of the Soviet Union and other centrally-planned economies was just that - primarily due to the weaknesses inherent in centralized control, and the paralyzing effect of excessive bureaucratic controls which sought to micro-manage all aspects of production and trade. Such a system of central planning and bureaucratic micro-management is inherently weak. What evidence does the Department have that the system of "clean stock" and "best practices" that is proposed will not be economically-stifling and place the country at an even greater risk than posed by pests, by limiting the essential free flow of living plant materials? Considering that existing systems of licensing, inspections, and cleanliness are adequate to prevent the vast majority of movement of pest species, what evidence does the Department have that such an expensive, intrusive, and limiting system as that proposed will provide benefits greater than its cost, considering the microscopic percentage of pest movement that it might prevent? What cost-benefit analysis has the Department done? It is a fundamental principle of risk management that zero risk is impossible, and that as it is approached, costs increase exponentially - at some point, the costs become a greater harm than the minimal remaining risk - has the Department made an honest attempt to determine this point?
La Honda, CA 94020-0337 USA