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AU: Potato import decision must be based on science

Terry Buckley, a potato grower from the South East of South Australia says the decision to delay the results into the findings of the Senate Inquiry into the possible import of New Zealand potatoes, is a good thing. "The delay until March 20th next year is positive. Any additional time will allow for further research to be conducted concerning the Zebra Chip disease complex and will provide the opportunity for the Senate Inquiry Committee and the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF) to re-examine the issues.

"Ultimately DAFF and the industry must collaborate to develop a robust management strategy that is both effective and appropriate to prevent an incursion of zebra chip disease."

Robbie David, Chief Executive Officer of Potatoes South Australia agrees.

"The decision to delay the results to conduct further analysis is evidence of the seriousness of findings to date. The requirement for more time can only mean more questions need to be asked."

There were concerns that the initial assessment did not rely on enough scientific evidence and there were claims that DAFF’s initial assessment was based on out-dated research.

"The draft report was based on the Pest Risk Analysis, which was dated 2009," says Terry. "I appreciate all research has been considered, but it wasn't referenced in the report. I can certainly understand why it was said that the Pest Risk Analysis was not relevant."

Robbie Points out the seriousness of what would happen if there was to be an incursion of zebra chip into the country. "The potato industry is the largest contributor to the national horticultural sector and is worth around half a billion dollars (AU). Based on the scale of damage zebra chip caused in New Zealand this could be reduced by around a half. South Australia produces 80% of the nation's fresh washed potatoes and is the largest producer nationally, with farm gate production worth $206 million. Consequently our industry has the most to lose if the imports do not remain suspended."

"In addition to this, Australia's reputation as a premium potato producer is at risk. Our competitive advantage is quality and this must not be compromised. There is little doubt that the international exportation of Australian potatoes and seed will be restricted or halted if there is an incursion of zebra chip in the country."

DAFF has stated that there is little chance of an incursion, stating that current biosecurity processes are enough to ensure this, even citing the discovery of two psyllids in shipments of tomatoes and capsicums as evidence.

The industry, however, disagrees and sees the presence of the psyllids, on the contrary, as proof of the reality of the threat. "The discovery of two psyllids, one in April 2011 and the other in May 2012, can hardly instil confidence," says Terry. "The suggested control measures demonstrate little understanding of the process of packing and shipping, especially in relation to container transport. DAFF needs to work closely with the industry to correct this."

Furthermore, Terry questions DAFF's claims that were Australia to continue to refuse New Zealand potato imports, it could lead to legal challenges by the WTO. "For this to happen market restriction needs to be "unfair." New Zealand already exports 60% of its potato crop to Australia in the form of crisps and French fries, so the opposition can hardly be described as unfair, it is based on real concerns. Any decision to lift the suspension must be considered thoroughly, discussed with the industry and based on in depth scientific analysis."

For more information:
Robbie Davis
Chief Executive Officer
Potatoes South Australia
Tel: +61 427 084 319

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