QUARANTINE: by Patrick J. ByrneNews Weekly
Apples decision set to rile city electorates
, November 18, 2000
Not only is the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS) coming under strong attack for being seen to lower Australian quarantine standards, but the political consequences of its recent recommendation to allow New Zealand apples into Australia is set to spread from 32 rural electorates into the leafy suburbs of the Liberal Party’s heartland. Pat Byrne explains.
T he report by Biosecurity Australia, a branch of the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS), recommending New Zealand apples be allowed into Australia, has seen angry groups of apple and pear growers across the country unanimously condemn the report.
They have called for withdrawal of the risk assessment analysis; the establishment of a new import risk assessment (IRA) that is open and transparent, involving industry and scientists; and the establishment of a Senate inquiry. The Senate has recently announced an inquiry into the Biosecurity Australia report.
According to the head of the industry’s Fire Blight Taskforce, John Corboy, in late 1995 the Federal government set up a review committee under Professor Malcolm Nairn to investigate quarantine policies and programs.
Mr Corboy told the Sunday Hearald Sun recently that one of the finding of the Nairn report was that AQIS needed to improve its communication process by developing a specific strategy for consultation with industries when carrying out and IRA.
The report also commended IRAs be conducted with political independence, in an open and transparent process, and within a consultative framework.
"The Nairn report recommended a specific communications process which AQIS should adopt for cases like ours, but they have ignored the process totally," Mr Corboy said.
"On the few occasion they have met with us, they have lectured us rather than listen to our input.
"At the start of the IRA process three growers, including myself, agreed to become an AQIS reference committee because we thought we could have input.
"During the two years the IRA was prepared we had just two meetings.
"At the first one they told us how closely they were going to work with us, and at the second one they lectured us on their process for five hours."
By August this year, his industry had lost confidence in AQIS, Mr Corboy said.
The political ramifications of the Biosecurity Australia IRA into the importation of NZ apples are set to be far reaching.
Australian apple and pear growers are in 37 Federal electorates, 26 of them held by the Coalition. Australia has a climate highly favourable to the establishment and spread of fire blight from New Zealand. If the disease took hold, it would destroy farmers’ orchids, their livelihoods and their export industry. The industry is worth $2 billion annually.
Even the Biosecurity Australia report admitted that if fire blight took hold its economic effects would be "extreme".
While Biosecurity Australia/AQIS says that its protocols on New Zealand apples would prevent fire blight from establishing in Australia, they also claimed that imported uncooked Danish pork would pose no serious quarantine risks as it would be cooked soon after entering the country. But a recent truck accident in NSW saw unprocessed Danish pork spill from the truck across a bridge on the Clarence River system.
The apple and pear industry have challenged the 45 quarantine steps Biosecurity Australia claims will protect Australia from fire blight. They say:
* much of the scientific evidence is open to challenge and seventeen of the 45 conditions are scientifically flawed;
* claims as to the extent the IRA process consulted scientific opinion is exaggerated (only half the 15 scientists approached had responded), and on key issues the questions asked of the scientists appeared to have been loaded;
* the effect on Australian native species, on popular plants used in home gardens and in council parks, streets and gardens, were not examined.
The latter is likely to see the fire blight issue become of much wider concern.
News Weekly has consulted scientific experts on the effect an outbreak of fire blight would have on nurseries, households and local councils.
Plants like hawthorn, firethorn and cotoneaster are often found in English-style cottage gardens. These plants are highly susceptible to fire blight.
If fire blight hit a nursery, it would have to be quarantined for a period of time and many of its plants destroyed.
If the disease hit say any of the leafy Melbourne suburbs of Hawthorn, Kew, Camberwell or Toorak, a quarantine region of several square kilometres would have to be established in the region and all possible host plants would have to be removed. This would involve destroying thousands of cottage style gardens in some of the wealthiest suburbs of Melbourne.
As for local councils, the implications would be far-reaching. One tree currently in voge and planted in shopping malls across Australia is the Manchurian pear tree, which is prone to fire blight. The streets of some NSW towns are lined with cherry trees. These and many other tree types and ornamental plants would have to be totally uprooted and destroyed, from footpaths, median strips, shopping malls, council parks and gardens.
This quarantine process would have to be applied anywhere there were outbreaks of the disease. The costs to households and councils would be horrendous.Widespread reaction
In short, the issue of New Zealand apple imports is set to go far beyond the 32 rural electorates, into the cities where households and councils are going to be affected.
Other rural industries are now coming in behind the apple and pear growers. Biosecurity Australia is handling 49 risk assessments for currently prohibited products and have 125 other cases pending. Farmers in many industries now regard the New Zealand apples issue as a test case for their industry. They regard the outcome on the apples issue as setting a precedent for their industries.
They are dismayed at the way AQIS has handled a number of serious quarantine issues, like that of Canadian fresh salmon entering Australia, and allowing unprocessed Danish pork into the country.
They believe that Biosecurity Australia/AQIS have compromised Australia’s quarantine standards and the security of Australian agriculture in the name of free trade.
The grape and wine industry is facing the threat of Pierce’s Disease from California grapes. The mango, banana, durian and pineapple industries are facing the prospect of imported exotic diseases if AQIS decides in favour of imports.
The handling of the banana case has seen Ross Boyle, head of the Australian Banana Council, turn the blowtorch on AQIS. He told the Australian Financial Review recently, "Here we have a bunch of bureaucrats going to work every day and having fun with Australia’s horticulture industry. It is truly amazing. There is not one industry in Australia that would trust them."
In the case of grapes, Biosecurity Australia has recently recommended allowing California grapes into Australia.
California is in the grip of a major outbreak of Pierce’s Disease, which has no cure and is devastating California’s $14 billion grape and wine industry.
The disease is so severe that the US government has allocated over $80 million to urgently find ways of stopping its spread.
The disease affects not only grapes but a host of other plants like citrus, almonds, walnuts, peaches, alfalfa, cherries and a host of ornamental plants used in gardens and parks.
The disease has existed for a long time in the US. What has caused the recent outbreak is the entry from Mexico or southern Texas of the glassy winged sharpshooter, a leaf hopper insect that spreads the disease quickly. Under the right conditions it can travel 200 km in a day.
This insect develops in huge numbers on citrus, crepe myrtle, avocado and various woody ornamental plants. It also reproduces on eucalyptus trees that are now commonplace in California, having been imported from Australia.
Again, while AQIS claims that the risk of Pierce’s Disease affecting Australian industries is low, doubts exist because fumigation procedures don’t kill this bacterial disease, which exists inside the grapes and the grape stem.
Further, in its own IRA on California grapes, AQIS rated the quarantine risk of the glassy winged sharpshooter to Australia as "medium".
The Federal Agriculture Minister, Warren Truss, has suspended the AQIS IRA on California grapes for the moment, pending an assessment by some Australian experts on the situation in the United States.
At stake in these cases is the credibility of Biosecurity Australia/AQIS, with questions being asked about its scientific procedures and quarantine concerns taking a back seat to free trade considerations.
The trade law firm, Corrs Chambers Westgarth, has warned that "there is no doubt that that Australia is being pressed by other countries to lower international standards."
More heat is likely to be added to this question as the Federal Government has just announced that it intends to invite private companies to take on some of the functions of AQIS.
Executive director of the Cattle Council of Australia, Justin Toohey, has indicated that the beef industry would react with "great nervousness" if AQIS gave over its role of inspecting for potential foot and mouth disease entry into Australia to a private concern.
It is ironical that at the very time Australia appears to be lowering its quarantine standards, warnings abound from international health and disease control agencies as to the risks posed from the spread of exotic diseases through trade and lax quarantine procedures.
This biological pollution is costing agriculture billions of dollars and degrading ecosystems.