IN JULY last year the West Australian government began imposing a fee to inspect all seeds (and products potentially containing seeds) imported into the state from other states. Commercial importers have long been charged but the fee now applies to everyone, including small scale importers and home gardeners buying seeds by mail order.
WA is free from many pests, weeds and diseases found in the rest of Australia and the purpose of the inspections is to keep them out. The state Agriculture and Food Department says there are over 940 prohibited seeds and a further 127 seeds are currently banned to stop the spread of the environmental disease Myrtle Rust.
While a small bag of seed imported by a home gardener could just as easily introduce disease to the state as a pallet load imported by a seed wholesaler, some believe the fee should not apply to them.
Among them is Biodynamic Agriculture Australia, which is running a petition seeking to have the fee waived for those importing less than 2 kilograms of seeds for non-commercial purposes. Apparently Tasmania takes this approach with imports up to 1kg. BAA argues that only seeds intended for “commercial purposes” should be subject to the fee.
This type of argument is known as special pleading. It relies on the claim that a certain group should be excluded from a particular tax or regulation because it is “special”. There is also an assumption here that there is something superior about being non-commercial, as if making money is unworthy.
One of several factions within organic agriculture, BAA’s slogan is “activating nature”. Best known for advocating cow manure matured in horns to enhance the soil, it is particularly opposed to crop chemical sprays of all kinds, blaming them for most of life’s ailments.
Whether it is truly non-commercial is arguable. BAA is structured as a company limited by guarantee. While it is therefore unable to distribute profits to shareholders, it nonetheless sells memberships and preparations “to promote biodynamic practices, which enhance and improve the health of people, animals, plants and soil to heal the planet.” The more money it makes, the more promotion it can undertake.
Moreover, some of its members certainly seek to make a profit. They probably don’t make a lot, as few organic farmers do, but that’s not the point. Even if BAA can be described as non-commercial, at least some of its members cannot.
But even if BAA and all its members gave away their products and funded their activities with day jobs, would that justify exempting them from the fee? I don’t think so; indeed, there is a case for charging them the fee and exempting the commercial importers.
The economy is divided into productive and a non-productive sectors. Broadly, the productive sector is based on trade and generates wealth and jobs while funding the non-productive sector through taxation. The non-productive sector, predominantly government, uses the taxes to undertake the activities that the productive sector will not.
The productive sector therefore has a legitimate interest in how its taxes are being used. Few would question funding things like the courts, police and defence, but using money taken from productive seed importers to cover expenses incurred in monitoring the non-productive sector to ensure it does not bring in seed-borne diseases is another matter.
If non-productive seed importers are to justify exemption from the fee, they need to show they are providing some kind of benefit that the productive importers are not. I don’t think using manure from cows’ horns, or organic agriculture generally, meets that standard. Those who believe in organic agriculture can do whatever they like on their farms, but it should not be paid for by others.
As for whether mandatory inspections of seed imports is an effective method of keeping seed-borne diseases out, that is a less obvious. Bringing in a bag of diseased seeds in luggage seems a pretty obvious way around it. And unless the benefit of keeping the diseases out exceeds the cost, there is no point doing it.
Whether it is wise to charge a fee of any kind to inspect the seeds can also be questioned. The fee is $56 per 15 minute inspection, not insignificant relative to the value of some seeds. The higher it is, the lower compliance is likely to be. If seeds are cheaper in other states than WA because of the charge, sooner or later it will be circumvented.
And we might also ask whether the fee is being paid by the right people. Those who benefit from keeping WA free of disease should be the ones who pay to keep it that way. If a fee on importers is not achieving that, a different approach to funding is warranted.
But there is no need to ask whether some people should be exempt from a fee that others pay, simply because they are non-commercial. Being non-commercial means being non-productive.
David Leyonhjelm has been an agribusiness consultant for 25 years and was recently elected to the Senate for the Liberal Democrats. He may be contacted at email@example.com