Growers warn bad apples could spoil whole industry

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THE Gillard government has been accused of abandoning Australian apple and pear farmers by giving New Zealand the green light to import apples into the country.

The government yesterday lifted a long-held ban on the importation of New Zealand apples, opening up the domestic market to a new competitor and, it is argued, the incursion of the devastating fire blight disease.

Fruit growers warn New Zealand apples will bring fire blight to our shores, crippling apple farming and potentially wiping out pear farming entirely.

”Frankly, once New Zealand apples start coming to Australia, farmers will be nervous just getting out of bed in the morning because they will be wondering if today is the day they discover fire blight in their orchard,” said John Lawrenson, chairman of Apple and Pear Australia Limited.

Fire blight is a contagious disease of apples and pears caused by a plant-eating bacterium. Australia is one of the only fruit-growing countries in the world that is fire blight-free, although New Zealand has argued in the past that it exists here.

In 2006 New Zealand took Australia to the World Trade Organisation over the trade restriction, and the WTO ruled last November that Australia’s apple ban was not supported by science.

In lifting the ban, Biosecurity Australia has imposed several import conditions New Zealand producers must meet before their fruit crosses the border.

New Zealand growers must be registered to export to Australia and monitor, spray and prune their own orchards to control three diseases: fire blight, European canker and apple leaf curling midge.

”Only commercially mature fruit will be permitted to be imported to Australia and all export fruit will be required to be washed by high-pressure water spraying and brushed in the packing house to remove surface contamination of pests and trash such as leaf litter,” said Dr Colin Grant, executive manager of the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry’s biosecurity plant division.

But Goulburn Valley apple and pear grower Peter Hall said he took little comfort from the government’s protocols, arguing spraying and brushing fruit would not be enough to weed out all microscopic bacteria before it got through quarantine.

”There is no measurement they can use in a packing shed to see whether there is bacteria on it. If it comes in and produces an infection in Australia it’s game over for us,” Mr Hall said.

He denied the industry’s furious opposition to the lifting of the ban was a smokescreen for economic protectionism.

”As a commercial grower I don’t want competition but the basis of this argument is not about competition. The issue really is protecting our borders from a disease that is quite devastating in its effect on apple and pear trees,” he said.

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