July 8th 2006

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: No quick fix for suffering Aboriginal communities

EDITORIAL: Quarantine subverted by free trade agenda

QUARANTINE: Senate blasts AQIS over citrus canker outbreak

WESTERN AUSTRALIA: WA's Liberal Opposition shoots itself in the foot

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Where did all the culture go? / Don't cry for me, Nigeria / Water on the brain

THE WORLD: Has the United Nations any future?

BIOETHICS: Should lesbians be allowed artificial insemination?

THINKERS: Thoroughly modern Mill - John Stuart Mill

IRAN: Can the West tame Iran's nuclear ambitions?

MEDIA: Propaganda masquerading as news

Something rotten in academia (letter)

Muslims who reject extremism (letter)

Under the influence? (letter)

WONDER WOMAN: The myth of 'having it all', by Virginia Haussegger

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Senate blasts AQIS over citrus canker outbreak

by Peter Westmore

News Weekly, July 8, 2006
A Senate inquiry has recommended a complete shake-up in quarantine practices in Australia, following a serious outbreak of the exotic plant disease, citrus canker, in central Queensland in 2004. Peter Westmore reports.
Citrus Canker

A Senate report has blasted the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS) over the handling of an outbreak of the exotic plant disease, citrus canker, in central Queensland in 2004.

But the Commonwealth Government has defended AQIS, saying that it was not to blame, raising questions as to who accepts responsibility for the fiasco.

The inquiry followed widespread criticism from the citrus industry about the way in which the outbreak of the disease was handled.

The committee found AQIS failed to properly manage the investigation into the disease outbreak, which ended with the destruction of all citrus trees within a 3,000 square km area around Emerald in central Quensland.

It is believed the disease came from citrus cuttings brought to the area by a company which declined to cooperate with the inquiry.

Illegal importation

The inquiry, headed by Senator Bill Heffernan, was established in May 2005, to examine the Federal Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry's handling of the 2004 citrus canker outbreak, including the response by the AQIS to allegations of illegal importation of plant materials, including seeds and bud wood, in the area.

In 2001, a former senior employee of Evergreen Farms in Emerald, owned by a millionaire businessman from the Philippines, had reported that the owners had illegally brought plant material from Asia and the United States into Australia.

Despite the gravity of the allegations, it took the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service six weeks to conduct inspections of Evergreen Farms. During the course of those inspections, AQIS found itself confronted by what the Senate report found was "a litigious, often uncooperative grower who apparently did not hesitate to have all possible evidence of illegal plant importation uprooted and burnt or destroyed by having the plants sprayed with Roundup at three o'clock in the morning".

Despite this, the AQIS investigators conducted only perfunctory interviews with Evergreen's employees (always in the presence of the owner), and failed to conduct an inspection of a locked room at the property which employees believed may have contained evidence of imported plant material.

Plant samples seized from the property were found to contain two minor exotic diseases, one of which had not been seen previously in Australia, but neither Pierce's disease (which affects grapes), nor citrus canker (affecting citrus fruit) was detected.

Subsequent inspections of the 8,000-ha property were "totally inadequate", the Senate inquiry found. AQIS initially imposed a quarantine order on the farm; but, faced with the absence of proof of illegal importation of plants and threatened with legal action by the owner, reached a "memorandum of understanding" which permitted Evergreen Farms to continue to operate.

Some three years after the original allegations were made, the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions concluded that there was insufficient evidence to prosecute the owner of Evergreen Farms.

A short time later, citrus canker was detected at Evergreen Farms. Against the strong protests of adjoining citrus-growers, who wanted all citrus trees in the area destroyed, a destruction zone of just 600 metres was set around infected trees, and a small quarantine area of 3.2 km around that, in accordance with what is known as the Florida protocol, a method used in Florida, where citrus canker has become endemic.

Six months later, citrus canker was discovered at a second property, and about six months later, at a third nearby orchard.

Only then did AQIS, under immense pressure from the industry, the public and the media, mandate the destruction of all citrus trees in the Emerald region. Eventually, over 600,000 trees in an area of 3,000 square km were destroyed. The cost to the region, in income lost, has been estimated at over $100 million a year.

AQIS then commenced an investigation into the citrus canker outbreak, and its possible connection with the 2001 allegations. Again, its inquiries were inadequate.

Deplores attitude

The Senate report said, "It is not clear to the committee why AQIS's investigators did not pursue issues such as the provenance of the bud wood. The committee deplores this attitude. It would like to stress its view that it is of the utmost importance to send a strong message to potential offenders against Australia's quarantine laws that they will be pursued. The committee is deeply concerned that that message was not sent on this occasion."

After the Senate commenced its inquiry into the citrus canker outbreak, AQIS again referred the matter to the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions, but again the DPP found the evidence would not justify a prosecution.

The Senate committee recommended a complete shake-up in quarantine practices in Australia. But, with no one accepting responsibility for the outbreak, this is unlikely.

  • Peter Westmore

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