QUARANTINE: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Citrus canker: Biosecurity Australia must be held accountable
, November 6, 2004
The latest outbreak of citrus canker, described as the "foot and mouth" disease of the citrus industry, raises fundamental questions about the operations of the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS), the body which has responsibility for handling exotic diseases in Australia.
Until recently, the disease was unknown in Australia. Citrus canker is highly contagious and can be spread rapidly by wind-borne rain, farm equipment, animals and birds, people carrying the infection on hands or clothing, or moving infected plants.
The matter came to public attention about three months ago, when it was revealed that a property at Emerald, in central Queensland, has been quarantined, and citrus from the Emerald area was banned, causing significant financial losses to citrus-growers.
About a month ago, John Pressler, who owns one of the largest citrus orchards in the country, and adjoins the infected property, discovered lesions on some of his citrus trees, and asked for an urgent inspection.
State Government inspectors took almost three weeks to come to his property, to confirm the new outbreak. All orchards in the immediate vicinity have since been quarantined.
Chris Simpson, manager of the Queensland Citrus-Growers Association, told The Australian
that the outbreak was the "most serious and dangerous biosecurity issue in the Australian citrus industry". (October 26, 2004)
The immediate question is whether citrus farmers will be compensated by governments for the loss of their livelihood.
The US Government pays owners of citrus groves to replace commercial citrus trees affected by the disease.
In light of the fact that the disease was discovered in the area some months ago, and that infected areas were quarantined but the disease still spread to a neighbouring orchard, there is a very powerful argument for the Queensland and Federal Governments to compensate farmers for their losses.
John Pressler says that as containment of the outbreak has failed, the Federal and State Governments must move immediately to remove all citrus trees in the area, and has proposed that farmers should receive $50 per tree for its destruction. This would put the compensation cost for the estimated 320,000 trees around Emerald at $16 million.
What is most alarming about the spread of citrus canker is that the disease was first discovered in the Emerald area several years ago by the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service, now Biosecurity Australia (BA), but the affair was covered up.
Industry sources believe that this earlier outbreak of the disease is the source of the latest outbreak.
At the time, a confidentiality agreement prevented details of the outbreak being disclosed to the citrus industry, or to the general public.
If the Federal Government knew who was responsible for the outbreak of citrus canker, it is not saying. Nor is Biosecurity Australia, although some industry sources believe that BA knows how the disease came into the area.
A report in The Australian
(July 16, 2004), which has not been contradicted, said that the June 2004 outbreak had occurred at a farm owned by Pacific Century Production. The farm, called Evergreen Farms, is owned by a Filipino millionaire, Philip Cea.
At the same time, the Brisbane Courier-Mail
reported that Mr Cea was accused of illegally importing plant cuttings and seeds three years ago.
"According to court records, the manager said that between September and November 2000, Mr Cea imported grape cuttings from California, citrus and lychee cuttings from China, pawpaw seeds from the Philippines and water-melon seeds from China - all without quarantine approval."
China is a country where citrus canker is endemic.
Evidence presented to the court indicated that the imported cuttings were grafted on to vines and trees at Evergreen Farms. BA could not locate them during a search of the farm.
Mr Cea denied the allegations, and BA said the evidence was insufficient to support a prosecution.
When the Queensland Department of Primary Industry sent inspectors to remove trees from Evergreen Farms last July, Pacific Century Production commenced legal action to stop DPI officers entering the property. Subsequently, thousands of citrus trees were destroyed.
There needs to be a full and independent inquiry into the way in which this disease entered Australia, and why attempts to control it in 2001 and 2004 were unsuccessful.
Until appropriate measures are taken, the Australian citrus industry faces a gloomy future.