THE Tasmanian Farmers and Graziers Association has made it clear to the Australian Department of Agriculture that it is far from happy with the present process for assessing the risk that agricultural imports to Australia represent to the local industry.
From where we sit it seems the deck is stacked in favour of importers of new products and against those of us who are charged with the responsibility of scrutinising any threat to our biosecurity.
In a recent submission, we told the federal Department of Agriculture that there needs to be a change in culture within Biosecurity Australia to overcome the high level of antipathy and mistrust felt by industry. This is not helped by a seeming zeal to allow imports from our main competitors.
At the moment, we feel an import risk analysis (IRA) is something bureaucrats do to rather than for Australian farmers; it is imposed on them virtually as a fait accompli in favour of the importer; and farmers have no meaningful opportunity for input and no capacity to influence the outcome.
Currently, the announcement of an IRA is often an industry’s worst nightmare. Farmers feel, rightly or wrongly, that the businesses they have built up over generations are under threat from a decision made by nameless, faceless people in Canberra. They already have to battle a range of pests and diseases with an increasingly restricted arsenal, so the possible introduction of new pests and diseases seems to defy logic.
This is exacerbated by the fact that after industry has argued strongly about risk, if a pest or disease is introduced, government can largely wipe its hands of responsibility.
Effective engagement in an IRA process is time consuming and expensive and many industries do not have these resources. There is a strong feeling that the whole process is stacked against them, with potential importing countries able to invest in research to support their case and paid officers in these countries pulling together their applications.
On the other hand, Australian farmers get no support to provide an alternative perspective.
In a nutshell, Australian farmers are pushing the proverbial uphill to protect their own biosecurity.
Recent news that Fijian ginger is now available for sale in Sydney despite major questions about its pest and disease status sent shivers up the spines of Australia’s pineapple growers.
Pineapple growers fear their industry could be the next in line to be exposed to pests and disease by a complacent federal biosecurity regime. Growers are outraged that the sale of imported ginger had been authorised by the government since it raised significant questions not only around Australia’s biosecurity, but government processes as a whole.
They say the government has yet to formally respond to the recommendations of the Senate inquiry report released in March which strongly criticised government biosecurity procedures regarding pineapple, potato and ginger imports.
The recommendations of the Senate inquiry were unequivocal in calling for a review of the import risk analyses for all three commodities. The report vindicated the position of the respective industries regarding their biosecurity concerns. Meanwhile, imported product, Fijian ginger, is already here.
This makes a mockery of industry participation in government processes and calls into question the usefulness of these inquiries. It seems they are nothing more than political navel gazing exercises with no capacity to influence policy.
Industry is terrified that a poor process conducted without any transparency or accountability has the potential to bring a disease into the country that can account for up to 40 per cent crop losses. In the words of the Senate inquiry report, "it defies common sense".
Government must take more heed of industry concerns. There must be greater consultation; and it has to be meaningful rather than perfunctory, one-way and having no influence on a pre-determined outcome.
We claim there are clear cultural hurdles to effective consultation, as the whole process seems to occur in a combative space where industry is pitted against its own government.
From an industry perspective, we would like to see more acknowledgement of uncertainty and less of what seems to be an assumption that lack of data equates to lack of risk. That is not a sound way of starting the process; it’s a reverse onus of proof that can have dire consequences for the integrity of what we produce locally. And it is not the way things work generally for the farming sector.
All too often, we’re told the precautionary principle must apply – in other words, if it is not clear what a possible outcome should be, then we should err on the side of caution and prevent activity from occurring. It makes no sense that, in an area as risky as biosecurity, this principle is thrown out the window.
Biosecurity risks are significant and can have community-wide implications. For example, the federal government’s own figures says an outbreak of foot and mouth disease (FMD) in Australia would cost $50 billion over a decade. That’s a worst case scenario – but nonetheless one that brings home the magnitude of the potential damage an ill-informed decision can bring.
After all, biosecurity is everyone’s business – especially in Tasmania.
Jan Davis is president of the Tasmanian Farmers and Graziers Association.