IT IS known as the foot-and-mouth disease of horticulture and, at its worst, can leave an apple or pear orchard looking like a bushfire has ripped through it.
But for more than 90 years, Australia has worked to keep fire blight from its borders. That could change when the World Trade Organisation releases its long-awaited decision on New Zealand's plea to overturn a ban on apple exports to Australia.
There is speculation the WTO will find in New Zealand's favour, striking fear into the hearts of local apple and pear growers, already reeling from a Biosecurity Australia risk assessment that could result in Chinese apples on supermarket shelves by Christmas.
''[Fire blight] has spread to 49 countries and it has never been eradicated once it's established,'' said John Corboy, Apple and Pear Australia fire blight taskforce chairman. ''It's the foot-and-mouth of horticulture [and] it's very climatically sensitive. Australian conditions for fire blight are much worse than New Zealand's. We have a much warmer climate and fire blight just loves warmer climates.''
The task force estimated the apple industry could lose $1 billion in seven years should apples infected with the bacteria reach Australian shores.
Mr Corboy described the appearance of an infected orchard as devastating: ''It looks like a bushfire's been through,'' he said. ''It literally kills the limbs and the leaves and all the foliage on the tree to the point that the tree can't survive.''
Australia's apple industry is worth about $700 million a year, while pears are worth about $350 million, he said.
One grower, Peter Darley, who runs an apple orchard at Nashdale, near Orange, said growers were already struggling with an oversupply of apples on the domestic market last year.
''The prices are about 20 per cent down on last year's,'' he said. And, because Australia was free from fire blight, it had no licensed treatment for it, such as streptomycin, which is used in affected countries.
''We have no control for fire blight,'' said Mr Darley, who is also the NSW Farmers Association horticulture committee chairman. ''It's putting the orchard industry under extreme threat. It's putting our clean, green image as an island continent at risk.''
The industry expects the federal government to appeal the WTO decision should it fall in New Zealand's favour. The federal government has received the confidential WTO report but is not expected to release it until next month.
Growers are also lobbying Canberra to tighten quarantine measures after they lost an appeal last week against a biosecurity ruling that paves the way for apples from China to enter Australia.
''Unless something is done, we'll see Chinese apples here by Christmas,'' Mr Corboy said. ''We're totally under siege.''