This week the all-clear was given for the importation into Australia of New Zealand apples. I wrote briefly about the possibility of this at about this time last year here. For 90 years Australia has sustained a ban on importing apples from New Zealand because of the risk of Fire Blight. Fire Blight is a contagious, bacterial infection which affects apples and pears, but can also infect quinces, loquats, roses and raspberries. It causes blackening and shrivelling of flowers, leaves and twigs and the development of cankers on branches. The disease is most active during the growing season, but persists during the dormant period, too, and is spread by birds, bees, wind and rain. There is no single, effective treatment for Fire Blight – once we get it, we will have it for ever – and it may also affect commercial honey production. Bees are an important vector of the disease and an outbreak of Fire Blight could well result in the quarantine of bee hives in the vicinity. If Fire Blight were to occur in apple and pear production areas in Australia the cost to the industry is estimated to be as much as 37.5% of the gross value of annual apple and pear production in an industry worth $500 million annually.
The World Trade Organisation has ruled that Australia can no longer uphold this ban, which was brought in to prevent to spread of the disease, because they say it is a strategy that is not supported by science. Fire Blight affects dozens of countries around the world, but so far we have managed to escape it – so it seems to me, regardless of the WTO statement, that our strategy has worked so far. While Biosecurity Australia believes that the risks to Australian crops can be managed, others believe the spread of the disease will be inevitable once the NZ apples begin to come in to the country. The New Zealand Trade Minister has threatened that our trade reputation will be damaged if we try to block the importation of NZ apples, but the states are seeking ways to take their own measures. The South Australian government is looking at ways to stop the fruit from entering the state, as is the Tasmanian government – whose apple industry is worth in excess of $70 million a year.
As an island/continent, one would assume we would be able to keep our shores free of many diseases which affect countries with land borders, and such has been the case to a large extent. However, in the interests of free trade, it appears we can no longer rely on this and thus the importance of trade and it’s associated economics will take precedence over quarantine and food security. In fact, this decision will put Australia in a fairly unique position and make us world leaders in one particular area. While I may be mistaken (and am happy to be shown as such) I believe we are the first country in the world without Fire Blight to import apples from a country that has it.
I’d quite like to have a bit of a chat with whoever thought that was such a great idea.