QUARANTINE: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
WTO apple ruling threatens Australian industries
, May 1, 2010
Australia's apple and pear industries have been put at risk by a recent World Trade Organisation (WTO) ruling in favour of Australia importing apples from New Zealand, where the fire blight disease is endemic.
|Fire blight-infected apple fruitlet|
with bacterial ooze
Although Australia has an open-door policy on imports, importing apples from countries affected by fire blight has been prohibited since the 1920s. The new WTO ruling, which overturns this, presents a major challenge to the Rudd Government.
Fire blight is one of the most destructive diseases of apples, pears and related species. It is a bacterial disease which lives in the bark of infected trees. In spring, the bacteria multiply and are transferred to flowers by insects and rain. It infects fruit and new shoots, and is impossible to eradicate.
New Zealand, a large producer of apples, has been trying to get into the Australian market for decades.
Four years ago, Biosecurity Australia gave permission for apple imports from New Zealand, but required that apples be thoroughly disinfected before entry, to prevent fire blight and other diseases coming into Australia. The conditions were such that New Zealand growers found that it was uneconomical to send apples to Australia.
Subsequently, New Zealand lodged a complaint with the WTO, claiming that the restrictions were not designed to prevent disease, but to stop imports. This followed a successful campaign by the United States against Japan in the early 1990s, which resulted in a WTO ruling against Japan's stringent requirements on imports of apples.
The US claimed that mature apples, which did not show symptoms of fire blight, were not carriers of the bacteria.
The Japanese Government fought the WTO ruling, but faced with successive rulings and the threat of trade sanctions by the US, backed down in 1995. Japan still requires that imported apples be given chemical treatment for codling moth.
Despite strong evidence presented to it, the WTO ruled that Australia's phytosanitary requirements were still unnecessarily strict, and directed that they be substantially relaxed.
Perhaps more worrying than the lower standards applying to New Zealand is that the two largest apple-producers in the world, China and the United States, have both expressed a desire to export apples to Australia.
With free access to Japan, the United States is poised to enter the Australian apple market.
China, which has become one of the largest exporters of fresh fruit and vegetables to Australia, will not be far behind. Both the United States and China have applied to export apples to Australia.
Australia already imports more fruit and vegetables than it exports. It imported $826 million worth in the second half of 2009, while it exported $749 million. (The Australian
, February 12, 2010).
China's share of imports more than doubled to $110 million in the four years to 2008-9, and now includes fresh garlic and peas, as well as frozen vegetables.
Biosecurity Australia, the government body responsible for import risk assessment, has already conditionally approved entry of apples from the United States and China.
Last October, Biosecurity Australia issued a draft report on the import of apples from the Pacific north-west of the United States. It permits the import of apples on conditions similar to those which applied to New Zealand in 2004.
In March, it approved the import of apples from China, subject to approved quarantine measures being put in place. Growers expect Chinese apples could arrive in Australia before the end of the year.
Australian apple and pear growers are appalled that Biosecurity Australia will permit the import of apples from the United States and China.
In a statement released after the US import risk assessment (IRA) was released, its national body, Apple & Pear Australia (APAL), said that "the draft IRA contains a number of serious inadequacies and severely underestimates the risks posed by the entry, spread and establishment of a number of pests, most particularly fire blight, but also of apple curculio, apple maggot and spotted wing drosophila."
It added, "Biosecurity Australia has failed to incorporate current scientific knowledge about the way in which these pests and diseases present, survive, transfer and establish."
It also said that the method of risk assessment used by Biosecurity Australia "is calibrated to a significantly smaller number of pests than is considered in the draft IRA. An underestimation of the risks posed by pests … also implies that the risk management measures proposed by Biosecurity Australia are inappropriate."
If the Australian Government accepts the WTO ruling, it will logically have to lower the entry standards to apples from the United States and China as well. If it rejects the WTO ruling, it will have room for further appeal; but if it refuses to give ground, Australia will be liable to retaliatory sanctions by New Zealand.
If the Rudd Government relents and permits the import of apples from countries with fire blight, it will undoubtedly hit the local industry hard, and could even kill it.