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Standing Committee on Agriculture, Resources, Fisheries and Forestry
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Standing Committee on Agriculture, Resources, Fisheries and Forestry
Ramsey, Rowan, MP
Christensen, George, MP
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Standing Committee on Agriculture, Resources, Fisheries and Forestry
(House of Reps-Monday, 4 February 2013)
CHAIR (Hon. DGH Adams)
- Mr Koval
Content WindowStanding Committee on Agriculture, Resources, Fisheries and Forestry - 04/02/2013
HEATH, Mr Nicholas C J, National Manager, Freshwater, World Wildlife Fund Australia
IMMIG, Ms Joanna Liza, Coordinator, National Toxics Network Inc.
CHAIR: I now call on representatives of the WWF Australia and the National Toxics Network. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I should advise you that this hearing is a formal proceeding of the parliament and warrants the same respect as proceedings of the House. Giving false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be regarded as contempt of the parliament. We have received your submission. You might like to make some introductory remarks and then we will have some questions for you.
Mr Heath : For the record, I am also Queensland manager and reef coordinator for the World Wildlife Fund. We would not be here if pesticides stayed in the paddock. We have no ideological problem with pesticides. In fact, they are probably very necessary to feed the planet. We are not running an organics campaign. However, we are here because a relatively small number of pesticides are unmanageable. They cannot be kept in the paddock. They are just too long lived, too toxic and too bioaccumulative. We estimate that it is around 10 per cent of the 100 per cent of pesticides sold in Australia, so there are plenty of alternatives. We have been vigorously involved in this process to try to reform pesticide management in Australia.
When we saw the bill, we had a long line of things that we felt needed to be changed. But, we come to you now with just one thing that we urge you to consider. That is, for the absolute worst of the worst risks faced by Australians and their health and the environment in terms of pesticides, we ask you to insert in the bill a definition of what would be an unmanageable or highly hazardous pesticide; insert into the bill a process for quickly resolving whether this pesticide should be banned or not; and ensure that in that process the burden of proof was very heavily on the industry proponent for proving its safety. These very dangerous pesticides—not all pesticides—at the extreme end are very long lived, very toxic, very bioaccumulative, cancerous, carcinogenic, mutagenic and endocrine disrupting. Where they have been banned in other countries, we feel that there is no place in Australia for those chemistries. There are plenty of other alternatives that can be used, so we need a strong head of power.
These chemicals are turning up all over Australia. They are turning up 60 kilometres inside the World Heritage area of the Great Barrier Reef at concentrations known to harm coral. That is Commonwealth funded research. They are turning up inside people's bodies. Parkinson's is being increasingly linked in rural health communities to pesticides. They are turning up inside the gut flora of newborn babies. They are absorbed through the air, through the water, through the food. If it stayed in the paddock it would not be a problem, but some of these pesticides cannot stay in the paddock even with the absolute best will, best techniques and best technologies on the farm. So, for that small number of pesticides, we need a stronger act. That is really where our opening remarks are coming from.
CHAIR: I just wanted to touch on the issue of having some chemicals in other parts of the world banned, but we do not ban them in Australia. We have received evidence—and I think this is a fact—that there are some chemicals in other countries that they will not use because they do not need to, but our pests and our climatic conditions are different. You do use that as an argument quite strongly. Is that a free kick you take?
Mr Heath : I would like to respond in two ways—
CHAIR: Hang on. That is fine; I want you to respond. But there are reasons why some countries, like the Europeans, might ban a chemical if they do not need it to get their food grown, whereas we do need it because we have different climatic conditions or a different pest that they do not have.
Mr Heath : Understood.
CHAIR: You understand that. Is it fair to use that argument to say, 'Well, it's banned there; therefore we should ban it here'?
Mr Heath : We are not suggesting that, just because it gets banned in Europe on Monday, it should be banned in Australia on Tuesday. What we are suggesting is that an overseas jurisdiction that has a high-quality jurisdiction, is very science based and has very rigorous process should be a very important piece of information for Australia. Think about it the other way: humans are the same here or there, and many of the problems that an agency might face in getting something banned and the very strong industry pressure are the same here or there. We are not saying, 'Ban it on Tuesday.' What we are saying is, 'Trigger a very fast process where those differences between Australia and Europe, or Australia and America—or wherever it may be—make it be considered and a resolution found very quickly.'
What we do not want to see is that argument being used as it was with endosulfan. You would be aware that for many years other jurisdictions were banning endosulfan all over the place and our agency was saying, 'No, it's safe. We're going to use it in a different way. In our conditions it's safe.' But ultimately the agency had to capitulate after 66 other countries had decided to go that way. In the meantime, how many thousands of farmers were exposed to endosulfan and how much of our environment was exposed? Just because it is a possibility it does not mean that you have to reorientate your whole system and ignore all of that high-quality information that is overseas. Australians deserve the best quality information to make the best decisions.
CHAIR: Is the process under this bill, if people have major concerns, to raise it with the regulator? They might show up through medical science. A number of GPs might have an emerging pattern of concern. Do you feel that the processes in our system are robust enough to give us some idea of where that will be dealt with?
Ms Immig : Do you mean under the proposed changes?
CHAIR: Under our present system, but we will look at this bill—which is what we are doing.
Ms Immig : I think, under the present system, the answer to that would be no. It is not to say that nothing exists. Obviously information is taken into account, but we do not have any systematic biomonitoring going on in Australia to actually find the problem. That is why we return to the basic criteria of the chemistries where—to your point about other countries, notwithstanding the differences of how we use things in Australia—the basic toxicology of the chemistry remains the same. If it is bioaccumulative or if it is carcinogenic then it is going to be those things in Australia as well. The important point is that we are not collecting the biomonitoring data to actually throw up those red flags, and often it falls onto the community and onto environment groups to be alerting the regulator. Then the current process is so slow and ad hoc, where we have got some chemical reviews going on for 10 or 15 years, that we are not getting the resolutions we need fast enough.
CHAIR: We started looking at this process in 2006—so COAG, the Productivity Commission and now the bill before the parliament that is now before this committee. I think everything is pointing that way. We seem to have got to the situation of the re-registration of all of the chemicals that exist in Australia. That seems to be an issue. There is an issue around cost and what that means for getting the agricultural products. Those issues are major concerns. If, understanding what you say, we have a system that puts up costs a lot there is an argument that we have not done an analysis on economic terms on this bill. Do you have any comments?
Mr Heath : Absolutely. There are enormous costs of the current system being borne by the taxpayer. We would like to see—and I think this links back to your earlier question as well—re-registration and the reversal of the burden of proof away from the community and the taxpayer finding fault or otherwise with the pesticides to the burden of proof put on a regular basis back on industry to prove that it is safe according to contemporary criteria. So industry may say that that is more costly but it is certainly less costly for the public. I think the costs are probably about the same—it is just who pays. Do you privatise the profits and socialise the losses or do you say that those who are profiting from the sale of these pesticides should prove they are safe?
Mr RAMSEY: You wouldn't want to do that with a lot of our environmental programs though—to privatise the losses and socialise the profits. That is just a comment. You say in your submission that the APVMA does not have the public's confidence in its performance. On what basis do you make that statement?
Mr Heath : Looking at the endosulfan question—
Mr RAMSEY: So it doesn't have the public's confidence?
Mr Heath : In terms of the public from community groups such as ourselves and the communities we represent, it does not have our confidence as it stands at the moment in relation to the quick, prompt and safe management of these extremely dangerous and unmanageable pesticides.
Ms Immig : I think the department itself recognises that all stakeholders are unhappy for one reason or another. I spent two terms on the APVMA's community consultative committee—six years on the committee—where I basically took the concerns of the public, of which I heard many, to the committee and I definitely formed the view that the community has very little confidence in the federal regulator.
Mr RAMSEY: There has been a revolution in agriculture in the last 25 years in Australia and it was generally recognised that the greatest threat we had to agriculture in the longer term was the loss of our most precious resource, being the soil. The changes in chemical use have enabled that revolution in the agriculture industry to happen. There is a cost to pay somewhere along the line with whatever form of agriculture you pursue. There will always be a downside. Initially we had to clear the land to start our agricultural processes. There would be many, particularly in the farming community, who would argue that we have a far more sustainable environmental footprint now than 25 years ago. What would you say to that comment?
Mr Heath : I would agree, but I would also say that there is a journey to go. WWF puts its own money and invests in farmers in its own funded trials. It is incredibly exciting to see innovation in the paddock. We have Project Catalyst up in Mackay. You are all invited to go on paddock any time. They have seen a 95 per cent reduction in the sorts of pesticides that we are talking about today and they have done it with increased profitability. Precision agriculture, precision techniques of applying only exactly the amount the crop needs and no more in the exact right place at the right time—it is incredibly exciting.
These are the sorts of innovations we need to pioneer to keep going down the cost curve and to keep being competitive with markets that are demanding a cleaner and greener product. We are already marketed as a clean and green country, and yet our pesticide laws lag behind others. We see that as a trade risk of very high magnitude. If we can clean up these laws, get them to a world standard, catch up to the other countries like Europe and the US, it would actually help our trade reputation and our product going forward.
Mr CHRISTENSEN: What about countries such as New Zealand, which most people would say has a very good environmental record, where you have a product like dimethoate, which up until recently was used in horticulture in particular in Australia. It has now been knocked on the head by the regulator but is still in use in New Zealand. So it is not all just a one-way street. That is what I am putting to you. How do you respond to that?
Mr Heath : Absolutely. But there are plenty of situations where we have not banned things that New Zealand has as well. So, in terms of endosulfan, they went well ahead of us. At any time, it is a very complex picture. I think we are not after any ideal set of arrangements; there is no ideal that no other country has met that we are putting before you today. As I said earlier, we are trying to be pragmatic and we are trying to really look at the key issues. In a case like this—where a pesticide is very long-lived, where it is very toxic, where it is a carcinogen and an endocrine disruptor, where it bioaccumulates up the food chain—we ask you to give the agency a greater power to deal with that product quickly. If we do so, we will have a great case to put to other countries to do the same.
Mr CHRISTENSEN: You mention that those chemicals you are speaking about are about 10 per cent of what is currently in the market. Do you have an exhaustive list of these chemicals that you are talking about?
Mr Heath : We have a list that we compiled in 2010 which we would be happy to provide.
Mr CHRISTENSEN: Could you provide that to the committee?
Mr Heath : Yes.
Mr CHRISTENSEN: Thank you. In determining those chemicals, what is your definition of a hazardous or unmanageable risk?
Ms Immig : Basically, the definition that we follow, the criteria to define 'unmanageable', is the one that is in our submission, the one that is basically developed by the FAO/WHO Joint Meetings on Pesticide Management, which has outlined the criteria for defining highly hazardous pesticides. They are things such as the WHO criteria classes for hazard, whether they are mutagens or reproductive toxins and so on, according to the list of criteria that have been established by that international body.
Mr Heath : So we would argue for the adoption of an international standard, not WWF's or NTN's; something that is recognised globally.
Mr CHRISTENSEN: We heard earlier today from the department and the regulator that the current process means that when international research or international decisions or even domestic research is put forward which exposes a risk from a product then a review commences. The situation that is being proposed is that it will now go on a sort of timing basis, where every seven to 15 years, depending on the length the product has been on the shelf or perhaps the risk that is determined when it is first registered—that is, the time frame that will take place to determine whether a review is to happen. I know that you said, Ms Immig, that you do not believe that the current process is working. But surely a risk based approach where international research, international decisions and domestic research is looked at and then immediately a review commences is better than waiting an arbitrary length of time, whether it is seven years or 15 years.
Ms Immig : My understanding is that one is not replacing the other. What is proposed in the legislation is that the chemical review process that is available to the APVMA will remain, because at any moment information can come to light about a chemical, and there needs to be a process like that. The re-registration process, however, is different. It looks at the inventory of chemicals on a constant basis, depending on the market and its level of risk. That is something that has been lacking in Australia, because products can stay on the market forever and the only thing that we can rely on is when they come up for chemical review, which in our experience, and evidently, has been very ad hoc and there have been long time frames. It is a very inappropriate way to regularly review the inventory of chemicals and get things off the market that no longer meet contemporary criteria.
Mr CHRISTENSEN: So if it is within the 92 per cent of products that WWF and the National Toxics Network does not find unmanageable or too toxic or hazardous, then surely there is no problem with it. The question remains: why has this extra regulatory burden been put on the producers of those chemicals when there is no risk?
Ms Immig : I would argue that I do not think we know whether there is no risk. That is the whole point.
Mr CHRISTENSEN: So there is more than 10 per cent of chemicals which could potentially—
Mr Heath : I will answer that in a different way. What we are saying, to maximise the benefit of public funds, is that there is only a limited amount of public funds, a limited time in parliament and a limited amount of agency, and you do need to have a risk management system. I agree with many elements of your question. It is just a question of risk appetite at the very top end. Do we leave the discretion for that to the Public Service or do we, representing the aspirations of Australians through the parliament of Australia, specify for those extremely dangerous chemicals at the top end what should be done and how it should be done as quickly as possible? Not naming particular pesticides but naming the sorts of criteria: is it long-lived, is it highly hazardous toxic, is it a carcinogen? These can be facts that can be ascertained against global standards. If it ticks those boxes, then a very set process occurs and it does not need to tie up the other 90 per cent, the rest of the department. It is actually a triage system that is trying to get that win-win situation across the different parameters you were talking about.
Mr CHRISTENSEN: Your view would be that if it meets any of those parameters it should be banned?
Mr Heath : It should be evaluated in a new process, because sometimes something could be banned in Europe but it would be appropriate here or, conversely, something might be okay in Europe but should be banned here. There will always need to be a process to evaluate a chemical against Australia's own aspirations. One of our aspirations should be that we should not be putting our farmers on the front line of Parkinson's and cancers; we should not be putting the reef at danger from highly toxic and long-lived chemicals; we should be able to make a very quick decision on that really dangerous upper end.
CHAIR: One of your points in your submission is that, by not getting rid of chemicals or re-registering a chemical or saying that it has some risks, we may be prohibiting new chemicals or new opportunities for solving our problems?
Mr Heath : Yes. This rejoins the previous question. For very, very low-risk chemistries—that is not to say that they have no risk—that are not in Australia right now, we despair that they are not. We would love to see a system that would fast-track demonstrably low-risk chemicals into Australia. Having this backlog of really dangerous, really old off-patent, really cheap chemicals, the wrong signals are being sent to farmers. The really dangerous old toxic ones are quite inexpensive and the really new chemistries—there is lots of innovation and much lower risks—are really expensive. It is poor public policy. I feel sorry for the farm sector. That is why we also feel that, given that we have to get through this backlog of old chemicals, there should be some sort of adjustment fund in Caring for our Country or what have you to help speed the transition of precision agriculture and adoption of these newer chemistries.
Mr CHRISTENSEN: One of the things that we have heard repeatedly here is that farmers are getting Parkinson's disease from chemicals, and there have been some other claims—they are great lines—but what proof do you have behind those statements?
Mr Heath : We have read the submission by Parkinson's Australia. I suppose 100 per cent proof is not something that any businessman would wait for because if you wait for a 100 per cent proof your competitor has beaten you to it. You have to operate on the basis of risk, as you mentioned earlier. I think that is the key concept here. Given how terrible Parkinson's is, given the apparent increased correlation between rural work, pesticides and Parkinson's, it is at a stage where we should be raising a red flag and saying we need to act to protect farmers, their children and their wives from that very top end of the most dangerous pesticides that are most likely—not with 100 per cent proof, but most likely—to be causing this issue.
CHAIR: Do you know how old is the oldest registration that we have in Australia? Joanna, you have evidently been in this space for a fair while.
Ms Immig : I am sure you are aware that before we had the national scheme, the states registered the chemicals and that chunk were grandfathered into the national scheme in 1995. I presume some of those would go back to the 1950s.
CHAIR: And so nothing has triggered an assessment of those?
Ms Immig : No, and that is the key point about re-registration: a lot of chemistries that are currently on the market have never been subjected to contemporary health and environmental standards and criteria, and a re-registration process would assure that they were because the field of toxicology is changing all the time. There are dramatic changes occurring in toxicology now, particularly in the area of hormone disruption and endocrine disruption, that will really challenge regulators. This idea of re-registration is critical so that we can come back to the chemistries as we have the new information at hand.
CHAIR: One of the arguments we have had put to us is that re-registration will mean that chemical companies will say Australia is a very small market, we will not bother re-registering this product but there may be a small group of producers that need that product or utilise that product. Therefore it would be a cost to them if that re-registration does not occur. But the commercial decision will be with the chemical company not to do that because it might be just too small. I know there is a similar situation with people needing to buy large quantities of product to service a small flock of sheep which they have, maybe an old breed that is not commercially in favour anymore. But to do that they need to buy a bottle which they can do 500 sheep with but they are only there to do 20 so therefore it is then stuck in the shed and stored or whatever. So the size of things seems to have become an issue in this debate as well. We have had submissions about it. Have you got any ideas in that regard?
Mr Heath : I have plenty. I think it comes back to risk, doesn't it? Risk is quantity times the hazard of the chemical. Maybe there is a case for minor use but that does not mean that is an argument not to have a re-registration scheme broadly because even minor use of a highly cancerous chemical, for example, may be giving farmers or their children cancer. So I think you have got a risk basis. If it is low risk then it does not need to be re-registered as often. It could even have a 15-year time frame. But if it is very high risk then it should not have a 15-year or 10-year or even a seven-year time frame. It should have a one-year time frame to get all of the resources and the best available information from across the different jurisdictions marshalled into a quick decision so farmers and their families and the environment are not exposed to these risks.
Ms Immig : I am also not clear how real that problem is, not to say it is not. A lot of the companies that have these chemicals registered are multinational companies that have undergone these sorts of processes in other countries where they have had to present that sort of data. We are not going to be requiring anything different here in Australia. So I am not sure how much that argument holds up.
Mr CHRISTENSEN: The point is though that Australia is a small market compared to many other countries and so the cost burden as a percentage of what they are going to make in the country is greater than it would be in Europe, the US or throughout Asia so that is the issue.
Ms Immig : I am not sure where the cost comes from if they already have the data. I do not understand where the cost would come from.
CHAIR: I think the argument we have had is about the size. If there are only a small number of people in Australia utilising it then shipping it in and registering it is not worth the economics, so it is a commercial decision. Perhaps that is the argument.
Mr Heath : Unpacking it a bit, where I could have some sympathy for that argument is if you had a new chemical, because right now there is not a level playing field. You have thousands of chemicals from the past that have never had to undergo an assessment, but if you want to bring in a new chemical, for a small market, which is incredibly low risk—and has been measured as such by other jurisdictions—it will cost you millions and 10 years to get that product into Australia. That just makes the problem even worse. That means we are not using the best, lowest risk chemicals, so we are caught in a trap where we are using the old, toxic, cheap ones. So I feel that there is an argument there, but not for the existing chemicals that have been here a long time or that have been tested in overseas jurisdictions whose patent holders have already prepared the data packages necessary for re-registration and which have already got distributors and whose costs are sunk. So we feel it is a bit of furphy for existing products, and there is already an extensive minor use system. Chair, I am sure you would be aware of that, and there are many products on that basis. So we do not feel that is a show stopper for a re-registration system by any stretch.
CHAIR: I think the committee has been trying to find where we fit into the world in whether we are the worst possible country in our system or whether we are in the middle. I do not think we are leading the world. Through international bodies there certainly seems to be a move to try and harmonise and to especially get the developed world onto the process—we are all looking at that. There are these issues that some parts of the world will be different to others and will therefore use different chemicals and different products. Is that how you see it? Where do you think we fit in? Are we on the terrible end or are we on the reasonable end in the present situation?
Mr Heath : I do not think we are up to where Australians would like us to be; we have done polling on that.
Ms Immig : To go to your question before, maybe there are some elements where we are doing well, particularly with newer assessments, but, in terms of that lump of old chemistries that were grandfathered into the scheme and our ad hoc chemical review system and the poor decisions that have been made to date such as endosulfan and diuron, I would say that we are towards the bottom on some of those older chemistries.
Mr Heath : We were the 67th country to ban endosulfan, so that gives you a bit of an idea of our performance on that one.
CHAIR: Thank you very much for your presence and your submission.