March 9th 2002

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Articles from this issue:

The Hollingworth Affair

Federal Cabinet decision on cloning

Media putsch overwhelms Governor-General

Will CHOGM bite the bullet, oust Mugabe?

Straws in the Wind: Rumpole arising

Environment: National parks are an unacceptable fire risk

Agriculture: Bar lowered on quarantine once again

Media: Crude but effective

Environmental optimism (letter)

Bias: in the eye of the beholder (letter)

Economics: Privatisation: the promise and the reality

Comment: Trust: a commodity in short supply

Culture: How the media exploits the US$150 billion American youth market

ASIA: WTO entry will put pressure on China-Taiwan ties

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Agriculture: Bar lowered on quarantine once again

by Patrick J. Byrne

News Weekly, March 9, 2002

The feeling among many farmers is that, within the latitude the Australian Quarantine Inspection Service (AQIS) and Biosecurity Australia have to determine what animal and plant materials enter Australia, these organisations interpret the rules in the direction of the free trade ideology rather than in the direction of protecting the nation's agricultural and environmental interests.

Under WTO and international phytosanitary agreement rules, a country has the right to set its quarantine bar as high (or low) a level as it chooses, so long as the rules are applied consistently across environmental and agricultural sectors.

The WTO also requires that any ban of animal and plant products be on sound scientific grounds consistent with the country's quarantine rules. In other words, quarantine cannot be used to ban imports just to protect local producers. Any ban has to be based on good scientific reasons.

Any one of the decisions to allow the entry of Canadian salmon, or New Zealand apples (currently under review) or now California table grapes, could be interpreted as bad luck of the draw.

However collectively, they represent a trend, a repeated "lowering of the bar" on quarantine standards.

Collectively, they are setting precedents, giving other nations the ability in the future to pry open the Australian markets to more animal and plant products and weakening Australia's ability to protect its farmers and environment before World Trade Organisation (WTO) tribunals.

In its latest decision, Biosecurity Australia has decided to permit California grapes entry into the Australian market. Strict quarantine conditions are to be applied, including fumigation and other safety measures to reduce the chance of entry and establishment in Australia of the deadly vine bacterium, Pierce's Disease, and its carrier, the Glassy Winged Sharp Shooter (GWSS).

There is no cure for Pierce's Disease. It lives in the watery vascular system of the grape vine. It can survive in low concentrations up to 21 days at 40C in the stems of stored grape bunches.

The vine, sap sucking GWSS hit California in recent years and can spread the disease up to 200km in a day. It breeds on citrus and eucalypt trees. Research on its life cycle is in the early stages.

Federal and state governments in the US have spent upwards of US$50 million in the last couple of years seeking solution to both problems that are causing havoc in California.

However, even if quarantine procedures can eliminate any possibility of the GWSS entering Australia, there has been no serious research to determine if any native Australian sap sucking insects could also transmit the disease, or to determine if any such insects could spread the disease from discarded, infected California fruit.

So, can it be said that the Biosecurity Australia decision on California grapes was biased towards imports?

The broad Biosecurity Australia argument is that Australia cannot pursue a "zero risk" policy, (a) because our trade and international phytosanitary treaty obligations don't allow it, and (b) because a "zero risk" policy is impossible to achieve because smugglers, international travellers and container shipping can result in diseases accidentally entering the country.

So if Australia insists on picking, packaging, fumigation and inspection requirements on California grapes to ensure the low probability of entry, establishment and spread of a Pierce's Disease, and if the disease is economically manageable if it does establish in Australia, then the imported grapes have to be allowed into Australia.

Then this scientific argument is rounded off with a trade argument that undermines the quarantine process - if Australia wants to export to other countries, we have to allow other countries products into Australia.

Of course, there are varying degrees of truth in these arguments. But the devil is in the detail of the rules, like in the calculation of the risk of entry, establishment and spread of a disease.

This means there is a degree of latitude in how the rules are applied, such that it is equally possible, and perfectly permissible, to apply the rules such that California grapes would be banned.


Consider the following argument.

Imports could be prohibited until research determines if any of the numerous Australian native vine, sap sucking insects could also transmit the disease, and if it could it be spread from discarded imported grape bunches infected with Pierce's Disease. This research has not been done.

If Australian insects could spread the disease, then a scientific method would have to be devised to determine what California vines were free of the disease at harvest time and which were infected. Vines can be infected but show no visible signs of infection for a year or so.

It is only when this scientific work has been done that a proper calculation as to the risk of entry, establishment and spread should be made.

Banning imports until this is done is called the "precautionary principle" and is justifiable under our international obligations.

Further, the "no zero risk" argument as it is put forward by Biosecurity Australia is misleading.

Certainly, smugglers and travellers can accidentally bring an exotic disease into the country. That is "normal risk", and all countries face "normal risk."


But the Biosecurity Australia decision to allow imports of potentially tens of thousands of cartons of grapes a year from California (as some have suggested is possible) involves a large quantum jump in the risk of introducing disease, well beyond "normal risk" .

As it now stands, the Biosecurity Australia decision will probably restrict imports to only the highest quality grapes. That decision may have been the best grape growers could extract from Biosecurity Australia.

But in quarantine and trade terms, the significance of the decision goes beyond any impact on the grape industry. It represents another "lowering of the bar" on quarantine, another precedent that may well come back to haunt us if, for example, another country that has experienced foot and mouth disease wants to export animal product to Australia.

The risk is that if we are not consistent, if we go "soft" on how we apply the rules that affect small agricultural industries, we will find it difficult in the future trying to apply stricter quarantine rules for major industries like beef.

The Biosecurity Australia salmon, apples and grapes decisions compound another fundamental problem with Australia's trade policy, that is hitting our farming and manufacturing industries. Our politicians and bureaucrats continue to assume that the free trade policies they are unilaterally pursing occur on a level playing field.

As News Weekly has repeatedly pointed out, in the case of agriculture, the average Australian farmer receives just 6% of his total farm income in the form of subsidies.

In the case of EU farmers its 49%, Japanese farmers 65% and US farmers have been receiving 24% of the income from subsidies. Recently, President Bush has massively increased farm subsidies and declared US agriculture a "strategic industry".

So, not only do Australian farmers have to compete against highly subsidised farmers in the major producing nations, but they also have to contend with a lowering of the bar on quarantine.

  • Pat Byrne

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