Additional comments by Independent Senator Nick Xenophon and DLP Senator
The (Zebra) Chips are down
The fresh potato industry in South Australia and Victoria, and indeed
throughout Australia, is one of the most important agricultural assets we own.
This industry needs and deserves protection from the introduction of pests and
diseases that will threaten its very livelihood.
Importing fresh potatoes from New Zealand exposes Australia's potato
industry to an unacceptable level of risk of exposure to Zebra Chip Disease
(and its vector the Tomato Potato Psyllid), a condition that causes infected
potatoes to exhibit black stripes and a burnt taste which renders the potato
inedible. The livelihoods of hundreds of Australian producers, as well as Australia's
international reputation as a high quality potato producer, will be put at risk
should Zebra Chip Disease enter Australian borders.
Effect of Zebra Chip Disease in Australia
South Australia produces more potatoes than any other state or territory
in Australia and makes up approximately 80 per cent of production of fresh
washed potatoes. South Australia also has the largest land area under crop,
valued at $206 million at the farm gate.
The farm gate value of potatoes in Australia in 2011-12 was $557 million.
Victoria accounted for approximately 18.6% of this output with $108 million.
The importation of potentially diseased potatoes from New Zealand will
have devastating flow on effects throughout Australia should SA's and
Victoria’s potato industry be put at risk. As explained by Ms Robbie Davis, CEO
of Potatoes South Australia:
There is little doubt amongst us in South Australia, in the
industry, that South Australia has the most to lose if zebra chip enters
Australia. Using the New Zealand and USA experiences as a benchmark, we would
witness more than $100 million in lost production value due to the effects of
the psyllid and the disease. I want to add this though: despite South
Australia's dominance in this industry, this is a national issue and we are all
here with that in mind. It is why we are sitting with the Tasmanians and
Victorians. Collaboration across borders is absolutely critical. At a national
level we produce 1.2 million tonnes; New Zealand's is 300,000 tonnes. In South
Australia, and in Australia, we can only compete on quality. Premium quality is
our competitive advantage. If the Australian potato crop is contaminated by
zebra chip alone, without considering the other pests and diseases, the
industry's farm gate value and the value all the way down the value chain to
the consumer could potentially halve. Just at farm gate this is a quarter of a
AUSVEG, the national peak industry body representing the interests of
Australian vegetable and potato growers, echoed these concerns:
The risk to the Australian potato industry posed by diseases
associated with fresh potatoes from New Zealand is far too large to take. In
2009-10, the production value of our industry was over $600 million, with
around 2,000 growers contributing to this. Yet the Department of Agriculture,
Fisheries and Forestry seems willing to risk it all based on out-of-date and
poorly examined science.
How then have we arrived at this position where imports of fresh potato
from New Zealand are even being considered?
New Zealand's market access request
Currently Australia does not import fresh potato from any country.
Previously fresh potato imports from New Zealand were accepted, however imports
ceased in 1988 after New Zealand were unable to guarantee the absence of the
quarantine pest Potato Cyst Nematode. In 2006 the New Zealand Government
requested market access to Australia for fresh potatoes for processing. This
discovery of Zebra Chip disease and its vector, the Tomato Potato Physllid, in
New Zealand in 2008 resulted in an outright ban on imports of potatoes and
other host materials. The World Trade Organisation (WTO) Agreement on the
Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures ('SPS Agreement') required
Australia to conduct a risk assessment in order to put in place permanent
measures surrounding the possible importation of potatoes in the long term.
What followed was a Pest Risk Assessment ('PRA') of Zebra Chip Disease
and the Tomato Potato Psyllid conducted by DA Biosecurity in 2009 resulting in
the Draft report for the review of import conditions for fresh potatoes for
processing from New Zealand ('draft report'). The draft report was released
for stakeholder comment in July 2012, with 27 submissions received in total by
September 2012. In October 2012, DA Biosecurity appointed Dr Alan (Chris)
Hayward to conduct a review of the draft report and summarise the current
literature on zebra chip disease.
Concerns about the draft report and Dr Hayward's review
The committee detailed the wide spread criticism levelled at both the
draft report and Dr Hayward's review by many in the industry, including AUSVEG
and the Potato Processors Association of Australia Inc. In their submission to
the inquiry the Potato Processors Association of Australia Inc supplied the
committee with advice received from one of Australia's leading entomologists,
Dr Paul Horne, in response to the draft report:
It is regrettable that the Advice does not provide the
standard of science and rigour that one would expect from such a document.
Statements of opinion are expressed as fact and referencing other than to
Government publications is minimal. One can only assume therefore that most of
what is written is therefore opinion and does not qualify as science. This is
unfortunate as we are lead to believe that the approach to biosecurity must be
science based (C Grant pers Comm.) Based on what is presented in the Advice
Australia can have little confidence in either the ability of DAFF to assess
risk and to manage the subsequent consequences should this proposal for imports
go ahead as presented.
Other criticism included the lack of scientific knowledge regarding
Zebra Chip disease, partly because this is a relatively 'new' disease in
scientific terms, having only been reported for the first time 20 years ago.
Concerns were also raised that the draft review released by DA Biosecurity in
2012 relied entirely on literature published in or before 2009 despite the
emergence of new information. Dr Kevin Clayton-Green wrote:
No attempt has been made by DAFF to update their science of
the past three years since the "Final pest risk analysis report for
'Candidatus Liberibacter psyllaurous' in fresh fruit, potato tubers, nursery
stock and its vector the tomato potato psyllid (PRA) was produced (2009)
despite the following statement quoted from p5 of the Advice:
"any additional information made available through the
literature and the consultation process which is relevant to the assessment of
the import risks posed."
DAFF's complacency in relation to the need for inclusion of more up to
date scientific information was made abundantly clear during the committee's
public hearing in October 2012:
Senator XENOPHON: Can we go to the issue of risk
assessments though. I guess risk assessments are valid at the time that they
are done. Why hasn't there been an update? There is a lot of new evidence that
has come to light in terms of tuber transmission, the fact that other psyllids
are found to carry the disease, the fact that it can infect other crops. Why
wasn't that included in a proper scientific and legal assessment as to whether
to accept or reject New Zealand potatoes? Isn't that reasonable? If you are to
have a robust system in place, surely you need to update it because there has
been a significant new amount of knowledge that has come into play?
Dr Findlay: If we were considering the importation of
fresh potatoes for retail sale in Australia, we would update the risk
assessment. In this instance, we are considering established measures and
taking account of the measures that were established as a result of the 2009
assessment only for potatoes for processing. So there is no new information
that changes those measures that were established.
We share the committee's concerns that the risk management measures
proposed by DA biosecurity (including packing house processes, packaging and
labelling requirements and transport and quarantine arrangements) show a
demonstrated lack of understanding of the potato industry and the real world
operation of packing sheds.
The committee has recommended that before commencing the importation of
fresh potatoes from New Zealand a formal Import Risk Analysis be conducted for
fresh potatoes, with particular attention paid to:
- the conduct or commissioning of scientific research in relation
to possible disease pathways for the Candidatus Liberibacter solanancearum
the lack of reliable diagnostic testing for the zebra chip bacteria;
the large number of bacteria, fungi, nematodes, arthropods and
viruses which are known to occur in New Zealand, and which are of concern to
Australian potato producers.
Whilst we welcome the committee's in depth analysis of the issues and
risks associated with the importation of fresh potatoes from New Zealand, we
believe a formal Import Risk Analysis will not go far enough to protect
Australia's potato industry from Zebra Chip Disease as well as other possible
bacteria and viruses. In order to achieve a greater level of protection our
whole biosecurity system needs to be rejigged.
In 2011, Senator Xenophon introduced the Quarantine Amendment
(Disallowing Permits) Bill 2011, which effectively made Biosecurity Policy
Determinations and permits to import, introduce or bring an animal, plant,
substance or thing into Australia disallowable instruments. This would mean
that the decision to allow (or disallow) imports would be open to much greater
scrutiny and transparency than is currently the case. Parliament would have the
ultimate say, based on the science and all the available evidence. Strong and
effective biosecurity regulations are needed in order to shore up our food
security, and ensure that our agricultural sector has a fair go and is able to fight
to survive on a level playing field.
That in addition to the majority report's recommendations, the
provisions in the Quarantine Amendment (Disallowing Permits) Bill 2011 be
Senator Nick Xenophon Senator John
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