AFFA by Patrick J. ByrneNews Weekly
stalls on NZ apples issue
, June 2, 2001
To date, nothing has come of the Federal Cabinet's promise to apple growers that a "reference committee" would be established to examine further the risk of NZ apple imports.
Meanwhile, Washington is likely to make US apple imports a condition of Canberra's push for a free trade agreement.
Pat Byrne reports.
On March 7, the Minister for Agriculture Fisheries and Forestry Australia (AFFA), Warren Truss, announced that AFFA was going to establish a "reference committee" to examine key points of dispute in the Biosecurity Australia Import Risk Assessment of fire blight to Australia from possible New Zealand apple imports.
The promised "reference committee" was supposed to be preceded by Biosecurity Australia producing a position paper to outline all the issues in dispute and in conjunction with the apple and pear industry, workshop through the issues of concern.
So far nothing has happened.
Concerned apple growers are preparing to restart their campaign on the issue if AFFA doesn't move to establish the "reference committee" quickly.
According to John Corboy, who heads the industry's anti-fire blight campaign, producers are asking several things of Canberra.
"First we are asking that the risk of fire blight be assessed on scientific grounds, not on guesswork. This means that if the scientific evidence is indeterminate on an aspect of risk of fire blight to Australia, then the 'precautionary principle' of the World Trade Organisation's Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) agreement be applied and imports should not be allowed.
"This agreement allows a country to err on the side of caution when the scientific evidence is not decisive or not available.
"Secondly, under the SPS rules, any risk assessment analysis can give consideration to a country's ability to control a disease like fire blight should it take hold, can consider ecological and environmental ramifications, and recognises that when scientific evidence is indeterminate, a country has the right to act conservatively to protect itself from imported diseases.
"Most importantly, the World Trade Organisation SPS rules do not say that trade has to occur. The rules allow for a country to refuse entry of products that pose a disease threat to domestic industries or the environment."
Mr Corboy criticised the way these rules were being interpreted by Australia's quarantine authorities.
He said that it is up to the exporting nation, in this case New Zealand, to prove that the Australian environment and Australian apple and pear orchards would not be damaged by fire blight resulting from the import of NZ apples.
"But AQIS/Biosecurity Australia have read the rules the opposite way."
Thirdly, apple growers want the AFFA "reference committee" to address key scientific issues.
The Biosecurity Australia assessment on NZ apples described fire blight as a "fragile bacterium". Yet scientific evidence shows that it survives up to four months on plastic, longer on wood. It also has an ability to survive for long periods on non-host plants like eucalypts and to transfer by wind, rain or human/animal contact to a host plant and then begin to multiply.
Further, Mr Corboy said:
"NZ authorities accept that the bacterium will enter Australia on imported apples, but claim that it will not transfer to host plants like apple and pear trees.
"Here the science is inconclusive. The fact is that in countries where fire blight has taken hold, the source of infection has not always been traceable. That alone says that until the scientific evidence is conclusive, the 'precautionary principle' should apply."
Most importantly, Biosecurity Australia failed to include the likely volume of NZ apple imports and prevalence of diseases on imported apples in its risk assessment formula. All considered, there is a strong case for the "precautionary principle" to be applied.
The issues of NZ apple imports needs to be settled soon.
Washington is also pressuring Australia to allow imports of apples from the US, where fire blight is also endemic.
The US farm sector strongly supported the election of President Bush. Apple farmers, facing declining incomes and bankruptcy, have been demonstrating in Washington.
Further confusing the situation is the push by Prime Minister Howard to have a free trade agreement hammered out with Washington by the end of this year.
President Bush is interested, but in a letter to Mr Howard has said that Australia will have to put two of its "sacred cows" on the negotiating table, the single selling desk for wheat and our strict quarantine regime.
An agreement with such concessions would be of great danger to Australian farmers.