Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Debugging Trade

By Simon Grose

As our neighbours seek to sell us more fresh produce, biosecurity is becoming a busier battleground for science and politics.

Border protection is a difficult policy zone, whether it be concerned with asylum seekers from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, potatoes from New Zealand, pineapples from Malaysia or ginger from Fiji. Over recent months the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs Committee has mounted inquiries into Biosecurity Australia’s (BA) approvals for these imports.

The main risk associated with importing potatoes from New Zealand to make chips is that they could carry a bacterium that causes sections of potatoes to turn black. Dubbed “zebra chip” disease, it first occurred in Mexico in 1994 and an outbreak was discovered in New Zealand in 2008. Other risks are posed by fungi, nematodes, arthropods and viruses.

BA found these could all be managed by a range of measures on both sides of the Tasman. The specific measure to contain zebra chip disease was for all waste from processing to be dealt with according to quarantine protocols.

Four species of mealybugs are the cause of concern associated with pineapples from Malaysia. BA judged that fumigation and a range of regulatory and inspection regimes here and in Malaysia would be sufficient to manage that risk.

Ginger from Fiji could carry yam scale and “a suspected new race or pathotype of burrowing nematode” requiring quarantine measures. Visual inspection and fumigation were recommended to protect against these threats.

Australia has an acronym for its approach to biosecurity – ALOP – meaning “appropriate level of protection”. This is “conservative, but not zero-risk”. Fair enough, as eliminating risk from any activity is impossible, and BA has obligations to steer a path between protecting Australian horticulture and environment from imported pests while not using biosecurity as a protectionist “non-tariff trade barrier”.

When the politicians chime in, Labor and Liberal generally support the principles of free trade, while the Nationals and the Greens come together on the protectionist side, all invoking “science” as the basis for their positions.

Greens leader Christine Milne has said that BA’s assessments “don't take into account the latest science… it all comes back to free trade agreements… the decision is made to maximise trade in the negligible risk category rather than take on the latest science”.

BA would resent that charge. “The latest science” can be a euphemism for “pick your expert”. For example, BA assessed pineapples from Malaysia as “low risk”, but Biosecurity Queensland told the committee they were “high risk” and a University of Hawaii academic judged them to be “moderate to high risk”.

So enjoy your chips, pineapples and ginger shallots this summer knowing they are dinkum Aussie tucker. Next summer they could come with a managed risk. Coming up on the ALOP agenda are fresh island cabbage from the Cook Islands, Fiji, Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu, and fresh lychees from Taiwan and Vietnam.

Simon Grose is a Director of Science Media (