QUARANTINE : by Victor SirlNews Weekly
Biosecurity inflames fire blight fears
, June 19, 2004
Representatives of the Federal agency Biosecurity Australia met with apple-growers and concerned citizens in Stanthorpe, Queensland, recently, to argue that New Zealand apples could be safely imported into Australia without risking an outbreak of fire blight. But its "experts" were made to look foolish when farmers questioned the science and methodology involved in their findings.
The Stanthorpe Border Post
(June 1, 2004) reported that Mr Ugo Tomasel, spokesman for the Queensland Fruit and Vegetable Growers (QFVG) fire blight taskforce, said:
"There would have been about 200 people there, and not just growers. Business people were there, along with those who are just generally concerned about the decision ... [Biosecurity Australia] did not convince a single person that they have made the right decision."
While Biosecurity maintained that they had the protocols and procedures to keep the disease out of Australia, Mr Tomasel argued that the regime for visual inspection of orchards in New Zealand lacked credibility. He said, "What is the level of surveillance? There's not even a working draft".
Undermining Biosecurity's credibility still further was the Toowoomba Chronicle
(June 2, 2004) front-page headline: "It ain't apples".
The subsequent story told of gardening broadcaster Ron Hultgren's desire to import certain rose varieties from New Zealand.
Last year Mr Hultgren visited a national rose festival and said he would give his "eye-teeth" to import some of the varieties on display, but could not do so for quarantine reasons. Roses, like apples, can get fire blight and New Zealand - along with at least 40 countries - has the disease, but Australia does not.
Mr Hultgren said: "The risk of fire blight outweighs my need to have these new varieties". Mr Hultgren added that should fire blight enter Australia, "many of the plants grown in Toowoomba would be adversely affected by the disease".
Toowoomba, it should be noted, is known as the "Garden City" and hosts an annual Carnival of Flowers.
The Toowoomba media's fire blight fears mark the beginning of the quarantine issue turning from a bush-based concern to a major suburban issue. For it is only a matter of time before big media outlets pick up on the threat to suburban gardens.Flawed risk assessment
This embarrassing revelation followed the astonishing admission in March that Biosecurity in its draft report had made a computer error when statistically assessing the risk of importing Philippine bananas to Australia.
Queensland Senator Ron Boswell, who has vigorously questioned the draft Import Risk Assessment (IRA), stated: "The IRA decision on importing Filipino bananas will directly affect the livelihoods of 2,000 banana farmers and their families, and I would have expected the risk analysis spreadsheets to have been checked 100 times to ensure they were correct before the initial release of the revised draft IRA."
Senator Boswell's swipe at the lack of professionalism from Biosecurity has been just one of many.
Pork producers are also lining up to query Biosecurity's credentials. As reported in News Weekly
(June 5), Australia Pork Ltd is challenging in the Federal Court Biosecurity Australia's recommendation to free up quarantine restrictions on pork imports. It has cited CSIRO findings that if imports go ahead, there is a 95-99 per cent chance of an outbreak of the disease, Post-Weaning Multisystemic Wasting Syndrome (PMWS), within a decade.
Earlier in the year, Banana Growers Council spokesman, Len Harris, described Biosecurity's proposed measures to prevent disease and pests entering Australia from imported bananas as "Mickey Mouse" (The Australian
, February 24, 2004).
The Stanthorpe community know that a fire blight epidemic would kill off the apple and pear industry in Queensland and, as we have seen, it would have a flow-on effect to other industries and suburban gardens across Australia.
When assessing whose claims are more valid - Biosecurity's or farmers' - the weight of evidence appears to be on the side of the apple and pear-growers, but as farmer Bruno Stefanon has said, "Unfortunately, the outcome is now in their [Biosecurity's] hands".
Prime Minister John Howard, who is on record as saying that this issue is to be decided by "sound science knowledge", should also seriously question Biosecurity's professionalism and its right to assess such matters.
Before the next election, Mr Howard should kill off this issue and leave Australia's existing quarantine regime in place, and after the election he might consider killing off the regime at Biosecurity.
Certainly, on the issue of quarantine, it is time for the community at large to ask the Prime Minister to give us once more some real "border protection".