A proposal to allow imports of New Zealand potatoes after a 24-year ban has enraged the horticulture industry, which claims trade is being put ahead of real and present dangers to biosecurity.
FEARS are escalating that Australian horticultural products are being used as “sacrificial lambs” to back the federal government’s pursuit of broader free trade agreements.
According to Ausveg, the potato, tomato, vegetable, ginger, pineapple, apple and pear industries have all lodged objections with the government attacking the lack of scientific rigour applied to recent import approvals.
Ausveg says most of the objections have cited the selective nature of the Import Risk Analyses (IRA) conducted by Biosecurity Australia (BA) – part of the Department of Agriculture.
Last week it upped the ante on its bid to stop BA opening the door to New Zealand fresh potato imports, releasing an animated cartoon urging the government not to play games with the potato industry.
The video, now on Ausveg’s website, depicts Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Agriculture Minister Joe Ludwig and Trade Minister Craig Emerson, as children playing an ’80s style video arcade game featuring potatoes being fired between Australia and NZ.
Ausveg public affairs manager William Churchill said the Department of Agriculture’s fundamental understanding of the tomato-potato psyllid – an insect that had wreaked havoc across prone crops in NZ – was “flawed”, claiming the information it was relying on was “obsolete”.
Mr Churchill said last year NZ apples were permitted to be imported into Australia despite scientific objection from apple and pear growers and industry on biosecurity grounds.
“What we’re seeing is trade and agriculture departments that are playing games with the lives of tens of thousands of people, their families and their businesses,” he said.
The Coalition has backed industry concerns, proposing a new Senate inquiry that will investigate the different risks associated with allowing
NZ potato imports into Australia, to report by November 21.
Opposition agriculture spokesman John Cobb said industry groups were concerned the government’s latest IRA on potatoes may be a “snow job” and proposed to open the floodgates without adequately addressing the latest science.
He claimed IRAs were also becoming “less rigorous” for other horticultural products.
Independent Senator Nick Xenophon said the government allowed apple imports from NZ last year despite warnings about the risk of fireblight – and history was now repeating itself.
“(Potato imports from NZ) presents a clear and present danger to the potato industry in Australia and the risks seem to be even greater than they are for apples,” he said.
“The fact is once we get zebra chip here in Australia, just like fireblight, it’s here forever and we can’t get rid of it.
“The risk assessment has to ensure we don’t cause irrevocable damage to the industry.
“We have to put a premium on maintaining a clean and green, disease-free reputation for our horticulture. Once we’ve lost that reputation it’s gone forever.”
A push by Senator Xenophon last year to amend the Quarantine Act to make import permits disallowable legislative instruments – effectively making Parliament the ultimate arbiter of IRAs – was defeated with critics claiming the legislation could weaken Australia’s quarantine framework and was potentially contrary to Australia’s World Trade Organisation obligations.
But Senator Xenophon believes his Bill could help better protect farmers from the various disease risks posed by lax importation regulations.
Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Agriculture Richard Colbeck said stronger measures were needed to ensure the IRA processes were closely followed and considered the latest science.
“Here we have a situation where this is a relatively new disease, that’s not all that well understood, and from what I can see and what industry’s told me, the science they’re utilising as part of the import risk assessment is not the latest science,” Senator Colbeck said.
The Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF) this week defended the scientific basis of the IRA.
“In developing this draft more than 100 scientific studies were considered when assessing the risks associated with the import of potatoes for processing,” DAFF said in a statement to Fairfax Agricultural Media.
“All submissions received will now be considered and (where scientifically relevant) will inform a final report presented to the Australian Government director of quarantine for final decision.”
The department’s chief plant protection officer Dr Vanessa Findlay said zebra chip disease had been monitored for five years, with no detection of the disease in question.
She said import rules for potatoes would be even more stringent, with potatoes only leaving quarantine control when in a frozen bag at the supermarket.
“Clearly science is not on their side; they are now mounting an emotional argument.”