Split over apple import concerns

The decision to allow NZ apple imports without tougher biosecurity controls appears to have split two leading tiers of Government.

After the industry backlash against the ruling that growers fear will inevitably lead to the spread of the disease fire blight to this country, the Federal sphere is maintaining its faith in Biosecurity Australia’s quarantine controls.

The Gillard Government and the Coalition are sticking to the tried and tested line that not allowing the Kiwi apples into the market here would go against the World Trade Organisation’s ruling and pave the way for trade sanctions against Aussie producers.

It is assuring the industry that the risk of the spread of pests and diseases, including fire blight, from the imported fruit is low.

But clearly the State Government has a different opinion. It is obviously concerned about the level of risk to SA’s $80m apple and pear industry. So worried, in fact, that it is pulling out all stops to fast-track new quarantine zones to stop fruit being brought into these growing regions.

It is an action that will cost a cash-strapped Government $750,000 for little political return – the Hills is a safe Liberal area. It is encouraging to see a Government that has not gained much respect from this community through its controversial decisions in recent years stepping up to aid a local industry.

That industry has always argued that Biosecurity Australia underestimated the risk of the spread of NZ pests and diseases to this country and this week their stance seems to have been justified. The discovery of one of its top three pests of concern in a consignment of apples bound for Australia just days after the go ahead was given for NZ to start exporting must ring alarm bells.

If two relatively small consignments can be rejected by the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service on the grounds they pose a quarantine risk, what will that mean larger shipments could conceal when trade ramps up? And with a commitment to inspect just 600 cartons in each shipment – which could contain many container loads of fruit – what might slip under the inspectors’ radar?

The Federal Government is right in its position not to go against the ruling of the WTO because it could jeopardise many other Australian industries that rely on trade.

But growers are not calling for protectionism – they simply want tighter controls that will cut the risk of potentially devastating pests spreading here. Let’s hope the new quarantine zones will be tough enough to deliver that.