QUARANTINE: by Patrick J. ByrneNews Weekly
Can we ensure zero risk on trade?
, August 5, 2006
Australia's quarantine standards will only improve when the Federal Government stops compromising on quarantine in pursuit of free-trade policies, and overhauls our biosecurity agencies, writes Pat Byrne.Australia's quarantine standards will only improve when the Federal Government stops compromising on quarantine in pursuit of free-trade policies and overhauls our biosecurity agencies.
A recent Senate inquiry, headed by New South Wales Liberal Senator Bill Heffernan, slammed the Australian Quarantine Inspection Service (AQIS) for a series of major failures in managing an outbreak of citrus canker in Central Queensland.
AQIS has been accused of "alarming" quarantine failures in allowing diseased ornamental fish into Australia, threatening native aquatic species.
In Queensland, a number of sugar-cane farms have been quarantined after the discovery of the exotic sugar cane "smut" disease.
On the recommendation of Biosecurity Australia (BA), the Federal Government has allowed imports of unprocessed pig meat from countries where the exotic disease, post-weaning multisystemic wasting syndrome (PMWS), is killing millions of piglets.
Only strong industry resistance to BA import risk assessments has stopped apple imports from New Zealand, where fire blight is an endemic disease, and banana imports from the Philippines, which hosts many exotic diseases.Ideology
The problem derives from Australia's ideological commitment to free trade.
While the World Trade Organization specifies that quarantine is not a trade issue - that a country can exercise as high or as low a quarantine regime as it chooses - politicians and bureaucrats persist in arguing: "Australia cannot have zero risk in quarantine because there will always be risks associated with international travel and trade. Therefore Australia manages risk to an acceptably low level. Quarantine policies have to be based on good scientific evidence, but we cannot expect other nations to buy our exports if we don't buy their imports."First
, there will always be a small risk from a tourist bringing a contaminated piece of food into the country. However, with scanning equipment and sniffer dogs, airport and harbour customs are an effective part of Australia's quarantine service.
What is misleading is to equate the risk of a contaminated piece of food from one tourist with the risk from say 20,000 tonnes of unprocessed meat, or five million fruit items, from countries with exotic diseases being allowed into the country as part of the Federal Government's trade policy. Statistically, such an equation is false.
Australia can ensure a very low risk of exotic pests and diseases from international travel; and Australia can have zero risk from at-risk plant and animal imports by banning such imports.Second
, while the latest science is needed in making quarantine policy, often science is not precise. Where there is contradictory or inconclusive evidence, or where there is a potential risk that cannot be properly assessed, then Australia is entitled to apply the "precautionary principle".
Consider the risk of PMWS entering the country from unprocessed pork imports. It may not be possible to accurately calculate the risk of this disease entering and establishing itself in Australia because scientists are still attempting to identify the cause, nature and means of spread of the disease.
Regardless, in every major pork-producing country, where unprocessed pig-meat imports have been allowed from countries where PMWS is endemic, the disease has become established. In this case, the Federal Government is entitled to apply the "precautionary principle", but it hasn't.
In contrast, Australia successfully protected itself from BSE (mad cow disease) by applying the precautionary principle and banning British cattle imports as soon as BSE was discovered in Britain.Third
, does Australia have to compromise on quarantine to ensure that other countries will buy our agricultural goods?
Some of our trading partners may not like our high quarantine bar because Australia is free of various diseases that are endemic in their own countries. It may disadvantage them if we enforce our quarantine regulations. It may be that such trading partners will retaliate against us, refusing to buy our products.
If any of our trading partners do retaliate against our quarantine standards, it would be illegal under WTO rules. Australia's redress would be to take the case to a WTO disputes committee, rather than to relax its legitimate quarantine measures in the face of threats; and Australia would have a high chance of winning the case.
Further, the argument that trade retaliation could cost Australia export markets ignores the far worse consequences if Australia lowers its standards. Australia's quarantine rules provide a huge, legitimate, competitive advantage. Many countries buy from Australia precisely because of the purity of its products. If we allow Australia to become the captive of trade threats and our produce to be downgraded because of imported exotic diseases, we actually allow ourselves to become party to the destruction of an important trade advantage based upon clean product differentiation. And that is the most important advantage any trading country can enjoy.
It is time for the Federal Government to clearly separate trade and quarantine concerns, and then overhaul our biosecurity agencies.