From langoustines to artisanal gin, Brexit has proved a drag on exports of British agrifood products to the EU, but there is one item that has failed to make it across the English Channel at all: the beneficial nematode.
The microscopic parasitic worms used by amateur gardeners and commercial growers across Europe as a natural pest-control solution for slugs and insects have proved an impossibly slippery proposition for the official bureaucracy in both the EU and the UK.
At the factory in Littlehampton on the UK’s south coast that claims to be the world’s only commercial production site of slug-killing nematodes, the failure to complete a single shipment to Europe in the three months since Brexit is a source of mounting frustration.
“It’s causing a lot of stress to our customers,” said Thomas Goddard, operations manager at BASF Agricultural Specialities. “It’s been a year of ‘Oh, it’ll all be sorted in the next week,’ but still, it never happens. And we don’t have a fix on the horizon.”
Despite being owned by the German multinational BASF and spending two years preparing for new trading arrangements after January 1, the company has been unable to complete a single successful shipment to its EU customers, which include Dutch flower growers and mushroom farmers throughout Europe.
With all products of plant and animal origin entering Europe now requiring an individual export health certificate that must be stamped by an official government-certified vet, it has been challenging to find a certificate fit for a product that can be shipped 300bn at a time.
When applied to the soil, the nematodes seek out a “host” insect or slug and, entering via the digestive or respiratory tract, slowly devour the creature from the inside, multiplying as they go, explained Goddard, showing off a dead specimen in the company’s on-site lab.
The nematodes are so prolific that the fermentation vessels in which they are grown require cooling jackets to ensure the worms are not cooked by the heat generated by their own mass reproduction. A 80,000-litre tank of growing solution contains about 8tn nematodes.
The worms are then separated, aerated and packed in boxes ranging from 6m for use by recreational kitchen gardeners to 1bn for commercial Dutch flower growers who use the nematodes in their glasshouses because, unlike some chemical pesticides, they do not leave residue on the flowers.
UK nematodes — BASF grows six different varieties at the plant — are world-leading but the company has grown increasingly dismayed since January 4 when its first load was en route to the EU but was turned back before even reaching port because no one was capable of processing the paperwork.
Since then the company has engaged with Defra, the UK agriculture ministry, to find workable solutions but so far without success. Part of the problem, said Goddard, is that there is also no one at the receiving ports in Antwerp, Calais or Rotterdam qualified to sign for the nematodes.
Even a pleading letter to agriculture secretary George Eustice from the local Tory MP Nick Gibb, who is himself an education minister, has had no discernible effect.
Gibb listed BASF’s complaints, including that Defra had been “slow” in drafting documents, while the Animal, Plant & Health Agency had “still not been able to identify a suitably qualified vet who is required to sign off the animal health certificate”.
BASF said it had had no response to the letter.
At the Littlehampton factory, which employs more than 30 people, stores of unshipped nematodes are stacking up.
Before Brexit the company sent 50 per cent of its total output to the EU but since January their two main competitors — one Dutch, one German — had moved quickly to fill the vacuum left by a lack of UK deliveries, Goddard said.
He assumed that a solution could eventually be found but every passing day risks losing another customer. “We are hopeful we can reclaim a lot of our business, since our product is the world-leader,” Goddard said. “But there will also be a lot of customers who won’t come back.”
Defra said it was “continuing to increase the number of official certifiers, having more than tripled the number of official veterinarians qualified to sign EHCs for animal product exports — and work continues with exporters and authorities in EU member states to resolve any issues that UK exporters may be experiencing”.