EDITORIAL: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Australia's clean, green image at risk
, August 13, 2005
Australia's primary industries will be jeopardised if Canberra persists with its "manageable risk" approach to Australia's quarantine standards.
As an island continent, an accident of geography has protected Australia from a range of plant and animal diseases which are prevalent in most other parts of the world.
This fact has given Australian farmers a unique opportunity to develop export markets, and supply the bulk of local consumption.
At a time when Australia's horticultural and agricultural industries are struggling against subsidised exports from the US, the European Union, Japan and other countries, our "clean, green" image is an important element in the battle to build export industries. Additionally, high standards of food inspection in Australia ensure that Australian foodstuffs are of the highest quality for domestic consumption.
However, all this is currently at risk from policies being pursued by the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS), the government agency responsible for protecting both Australian agricultural industries and consumers.
Under the Federal Government's free-trade policies, the balance has shifted from preventing imported diseases, to one of "manageable risk", which implies that Australia should permit imports of food and animal products from countries where exotic diseases are well-established, subject to efforts to minimise the risk of disease importation.The lesson of history
The impact of exotic pests such as rabbits, foxes and cane toads, as well as plant diseases such as phylloxera which almost wiped out the Australian wine industry in the 19th century, gorse, thistles, Patterson's curse and many others, shows what happens when quarantine standards are inadequate: imported pests and diseases are almost impossible to eradicate.
Several recent decisions of AQIS, and particularly its disease risk-assessment body, Biosecurity Australia, show that standards are falling.
One illustration of this policy is seen in the outbreak in Australia of citrus canker, a nasty disease endemic in Asia and parts of the United States.
Since the original outbreak was discovered near Emerald several years ago, millions of dollars have been spent in trying to contain the spread of the disease, but despite these efforts, it has spread to neighbouring orchards.
More recently, Biosecurity Australia approved the import of uncooked pigmeat into Australia, on the basis of a risk analysis aimed at "reducing risk to a very low level, but not to zero".
This was despite the fact that the import risk assessment, prepared by an expert Panel, concluded that there was a high prospect of pig meat infected with a disease known as Post-Weaning Multisystemic Wasting Syndrome (PMWS) reaching commercial piggeries, and through them, the whole industry in Australia.
The Federal Court ruled last month that the risk assessment was wrong. Justice Wilcox said that "under the policy that has now been adopted by the director, an outbreak of PMWS within 10 years is a virtual certainty".
He added: "An assessment that such a risk is 'acceptably low' seems to me bizarre, especially having regard to concern expressed by successive Australian governments about maintenance of high quarantine standards. Intuitively, one feels, there must be something wrong with the Panel's assessment of risk."
He concluded that the Panel's reasoning was unsupported by any fact, scientific evidence or scientific expertise.
AQIS immediately cancelled the import permit of the importer that was the subject of the legal action, but left all other import permits in place. Additionally, it has announced that it will appeal the court's judgment. Just how serious are they about protecting Australian industry?
In the meantime, New Zealand has stepped up pressure on Biosecurity Australia to permit the import of apples from New Zealand, where the fireblight disease is endemic.
In a recent address to New Zealand farmers, the NZ Agriculture Minister, Jim Sutton, criticised Australia for holding up imports of New Zealand apples, and said that they would probably have been admitted to Australia if it had not been for the recent court decision in the pig meat case.
He said, "We have stepped up the heat on Biosecurity Australia - our High Commission is now contacting them every week to reiterate the urgent need for progress", not only on apples, but on apricots and other fruit.
Mr Sutton added, "Last month, we took the unprecedented step of listing a complaint against Australia at the World Trade Organization's quarantine (SPS) committee. The New Zealand statement was very clear, and delivered a strong message. It was supported by other countries as well, including from the two heavy hitters, the United States and the European Union."
In these parts of the world, fireblight is also endemic.
In light of Biosecurity's recent actions, it is hard to believe that the Australian Government will stand up for Australian industry, unless they are subjected to massive public pressure. This may be the last opportunity to prevent a further catastrophe for Australian primary industries.
- Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.