WHENEVER I need to compare my insurance policy against others in the market, or review the efficiency of my laundry detergent, I like to see what Choice has to say about them. Its performance tests are objective and, while the commentary inevitably includes some greenie bias, this can be disregarded. The net result is a handy guide to what to buy.
What a pity then that the organisation periodically embarks on idiotic campaigns based on the complete substitution of greenie bias for objectivity. Indeed, at times it appears to be little more than an arm of the Greens political party.
The latest example is its campaign to convince the Minister for Agriculture to retain a plan by the previous Labor government to require periodic re-approval and re-registration of pesticides used by Australia’s farmers.
The Labor government came up with the idea that chemicals already in the market ought to be periodically reviewed against current standards, on the assumption that the older chemicals may not meet contemporary expectations.
The existing approach is to respond to any new information that raises concerns about the ongoing use of chemicals and take regulatory action to mitigate the identified risk. In other words, concerns must be raised about a particular chemical before it is subject to review, and any action follows a risk assessment.
This happens quite regularly. The Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) Annual Report for 2011-2012 says that 26 chemicals or chemical groups were under review. There were 547 regulatory decisions during the year relating to reconsideration of registration, resulting in 6 active constituent approval suspensions, 193 product registration suspensions and 348 label approval suspensions.
Reviewing existing chemicals simply because they have been on the market for a certain number of years is not a novel idea. The Europeans have been subjecting agricultural chemicals to such reviews for some time. Almost certainly that’s where the previous government got the idea.
What it has led to is the withdrawal of quite a few older chemicals from the market. This is because the regulators decided to demand more information to bring their data dossiers up to the same standard as new chemicals. Mostly this relates to long term toxicity or metabolism studies conducted using the latest protocols. These are very expensive, involving laboratory animals and considerable analytical resources.
The problem is, these older chemicals are no longer protected by patents, with the result that there are numerous generic suppliers (many located in China or India). Prices have fallen and margins are very slim. In many cases, nobody is willing to incur the expense of the studies. Thus the data is not generated and the registrations are cancelled.
Choice and the green lobby like to claim this is as evidence that the chemicals are hazardous, but that is false. All it shows is that nobody considers it worthwhile spending millions of dollars to generate the additional data required by the regulators to keep them on the market.
It is worth considering who the losers are in this. At the top of the list are the farmers who rely on the chemicals to keep their produce free of pests and disease. In particular it is horticulture farmers, those growing fruit and vegetables, who bear most of the burden.
Horticulture is a very diverse industry. In addition to major crops like apples, bananas, potatoes and tomatoes, it includes bok choy, garlic and hops. The insects, fungi and weeds that attack them are equally diverse and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. While the same chemicals might be used, the rate, timing and method of application can vary substantially, and each crop and use requires its own regulatory approval.
The experience in Europe has been that, as older chemicals were withdrawn from the market, there were not always new ones to replace them. In at least one case, the regulators had to hurriedly issue permits to allow old chemicals back onto the market or risk wiping out an entire crop.
Even when there are newer products available that meet current data dossier standards, they are invariably more expensive. When farmers are forced to use them, their costs of production are increased and consumer prices rise. And in an ironic twist, these newer chemicals are mostly still under patent and produced by the large multinational chemical companies that the green movement loves to hate.
If the particular horticulture sector has export customers, it may not be possible to increase prices. And unless competitor countries take a similar approach and deregister the old chemicals, the farmers who can no longer use them are at a competitive disadvantage.
For the small horticulture sectors, there is an additional problem. Demand for chemicals is too low to justify investing in expensive trials to achieve registration. A product may be registered for onions, for example, but cannot be legally used on garlic because no trials have been undertaken and it is therefore not approved.
This is overcome in Australia by the industry organisation, Horticulture Australia, sponsoring trials that allow the regulator, the APVMA, to issue a minor use permit for a particular crop.
If the chemical subject to the minor use permit is subsequently withdrawn from the market, affected farmers not only lose access to the chemical but must also fund the trials needed to obtain a permit on a new chemical, assuming one is available.
What Choice is campaigning for is an increase in pointless regulation. Every single agricultural chemical available for sale in Australia, old or new, has been subjected to a rigorous, science-based risk assessment in Australia, under Australian conditions.
Just because a product has been withdrawn in other countries means nothing. Different circumstances, environments and crop types, as well as differing regulatory philosophies, all produce different outcomes. Time based reviews of agricultural chemicals will do nothing to improve public safety, but will drive up the price of food to consumers.
Choice does good work at times, but ought to abandon its greenie obsession. Its legitimacy depends on doing what’s right for consumers, not being a shill for the Greens.