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Petitions from Melbourne region, Victoria, 1 December 2011
House of Reps
- Parl No.
- Committee Name
Standing Committee on Petitions
CHAIR (Mr Murphy)
Broadbent, Russell, MP
Van Manen, Bert, MP
Symon, Mike, MP
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Content WindowPetitions from Melbourne region, Victoria, 1 December 2011
CLAYTON-GREENE, Dr Kevin, Biosecurity Adviser, AUSVEG Ltd
MULCAHY, Mr Richard John, Principal Petitioner, Petition on Zebra Chip Disease in New Zealand Potatoes
Committee met at 09:30
CHAIR ( Mr Murphy ): I welcome all witnesses and members of the public to the Petitions Committee hearing today, where we will discuss selected petitions. Under the rules of the House of Representatives, the Petitions Committee is required to consider if petitions comply with those rules. If so, the petition may then be presented to the House and the committee may refer it to the relevant government minister for a response. We may also hold public hearings into petitions, allowing both principal petitioners and government agencies to consider further the concerns raised in petitions and the response made.
Today we are hearing from principal petitioners, or their representatives, for the following petitions: petition on zebra chip disease in New Zealand potatoes; petition on preventing child sexual exploitation; petition on treatment of paroxysmal nocturnal haemoglobinuria; and petition on patentable subject matter for computation and information processing. So that we can all be clear about the procedures that the committee will follow today, I will outline them briefly now. I will invite witnesses to come to the table in turn to answer our questions individually or as representatives of an organisation. As you can see, the committee's proceedings are being recorded by Hansard.
Zebra chip disease in New Zealand potatoes
CHAIR: I invite the principal petitioner, Mr Richard Mulcahy, and a representative of AUSVEG, Dr Kevin Clayton-Greene, to the table to speak about the petition on zebra chip disease in New Zealand potatoes. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I should advise you that the hearing today is a formal proceeding of the parliament. I remind you, as I remind all witnesses, that the giving of false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be regarded as a contempt of parliament. Do you have any comments to make on the capacity in which you appear?
Mr Mulcahy : I am also the Chief Executive Officer of AUSVEG, the peak industry body for Australia's 9,000 vegetable and potato growers.
CHAIR: Thank you. I invite either or both of you to make an opening statement and then we will proceed to questions.
Mr Mulcahy : Good morning, Chair and members of the Petitions Committee. Central to our decision to organise a petition for consideration by members of the House of Representatives and the Australian government is our desire to keep a dangerous plant-borne disease out of Australia. This disease is called zebra chip and it has caused severe damage to potato-growing operations overseas. Zebra chip disease is caused by a pathogen which renders infected potatoes worthless by causing discolouration in the tuber of the plant. The insect which transmits this pathogen also eats potato and tomato leaves and plants, affecting a plant's health and yield.
Australia is currently free of this disease. However, there are negotiations taking place at the moment which could lead to the importation of potatoes which are known to be infected with zebra chip. The disease has already wreaked havoc on the New Zealand potato industry. The insect itself can cause yield losses of up to 50 per cent, while the pathogen can render entire crops unsellable. In the year 2008-09 it caused losses of around $60 million for producers in New Zealand, and as recently as last month the disease has been reported in the important potato-producing region of Idaho in the US north-west.
Potatoes represent one of the Australian horticulture industry's largest crops. Over 2,000 growing operations supply both fresh and processing potatoes to Australian markets. Zebra chip disease has the potential to severely affect these growers and, in turn, impact on the food-processing and retailing sectors as well as ultimately the Australian consumer. Australia is geographically fortunate to be free of a broad range of pests and diseases which have affected and in some cases destroyed industries overseas. It is incredibly important that we take all measures to stop this disease damaging our potato industry.
It is the view of AUSVEG that the risk of allowing New Zealand diseased potatoes into this country is too great to take and gambles with the livelihood of Australian growers. We are not advocating protectionism. We live with a variety of imports into this country, but when there are serious biosecurity risks associated with that importation we are of the belief that it is the responsibility of the Australian government and its agencies to take all possible steps to prevent the introduction of any serious pests or diseases.
Mr Chair, if it is the wish of the committee, Dr Clayton-Greene and I shall be pleased to respond to your questions.
CHAIR: Okay. You are aware of the letters from the Hon. Dr Mike Kelly, the Parliamentary Secretary for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, and also Dr Craig Emerson—respectively, those letters are dated 15 August and 20 September—in relation to trade matters and the WTO. Specifically, Dr Emerson has foreshadowed that his department is in regular contact with the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, and that department has advised that Biosecurity Australia will soon commence a formal review of the import policy for potatoes from New Zealand as part of this review. Biosecurity Australia will publicly release the draft import conditions, and stakeholders will have an opportunity to provide comments and submissions. I am interested to know initially whether you are implacably opposed to the importation if the processes undertaken by Biosecurity Australia address the concerns that you have. Specifically, I would like to know—in addition to your opening statement—what those concerns are, because I should imagine that with the pressure for free trade this, like the importation of apples from New Zealand to Australia, will not go away. I think this committee would like to hear aired in public whether you can entertain any possibility that at some future stage there could be such importation.
Mr Mulcahy : We are conscious of our obligations under the WTO and, as I mentioned in my opening statement, we are not out here being protectionist; there are a lot of products coming in from all sorts of countries in the world, and we live with that. But our concern is that we have seen the enormous damage inflicted on producers in the southern United States and in Mexico, and our fear is that this could decimate the industry, particularly across South Australia, Victoria and Tasmania, where we have a concentration of growers. In terms of addressing your specific question, it really does come down to the measure of risk. I might ask my colleague to elaborate on that issue of risk and how it could be managed, which will dictate how we can respond and whether we could ever live with a scenario where they are brought into Australia.
CHAIR: What I would like specifically addressed is that you indicate what quarantine measures you would regard as being necessary to ensure that the disease could never be imported to Australia.
Dr Clayton-Greene : I think it is important to recognise a couple of things. It does not matter what quarantine procedures are put in place; the disease will come into Australia. There will be potatoes that will be infected, and Biosecurity Australia have acknowledged that fact. So whatever happens there will be infected potatoes imported into Australia. That is the first thing. I think we need to make that absolutely clear. The reason that this disease is such a problem is that currently there is no way of detecting the disease nondestructively in potato tubers. You cannot just look at them and say, 'That's got the disease' and grade them out. The only way to detect the disease is destructively grading. That is the first issue, and that is the reason that the disease has been such a problem in the first place.
It is particularly an issue in the processing industry because the disease gets into the potato tuber and produces sugars and when they are cooked in the processing procedure they then turn dark brown and black, which is what sugars do. It does not happen in the first fryer. It happens in the second fryer, which is when they are sitting at the counter waiting to be cooked by McDonald's. The first thing they see when they put them in—and there might be only three chips in the basket—is that suddenly they have gone black. That does not create a great deal of confidence in customers. It does not affect the crisping industry to the same extent, because they have end-point colour sorters before they go into the bag. They can pull the chips out and they do not get to the customer. The processing industries that make French fries and also fresh market potatoes are the ones that are affected. We need to make it quite clear that, whatever happens, there will be potatoes that will come into Australia that will have that disease in them. That is the first thing I would like to say.
The second thing, and I guess the real concern about this disease, is that it did not exist 20 years ago. It has only been around since about the early 90s. We do not know how it originated. We do not know where it came from. It is believed at this stage that it has only one host, which is an insect called a psyllid; but we do not know that. There is so little known about it. I have been on an intercountry committee that is looking at the research in New Zealand, as an observer, and it is incredible how much is learnt every six months about this disease. We know a lot more about it than we did a few years ago, but we do not know very much about it at all. It is not like potato cyst nematode or fire blight, which have been around for a long time and for which we understand the biology of the disease quite well. It has to be said that there is a lot more about this that we do not understand than that we do understand. Those two issues mean that, if we do not understand it, I am not sure that we can predict much about how we should go about controlling it.
CHAIR: It would seem from what you are saying, Dr Clayton-Greene, that the review which is being undertaken by the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry will be fruitless because, irrespective of what is uncovered in that review, you are telling us that zebra chip disease is going to come into Australia whether we like it or not and it does not matter what rigorous biosecurity measures we put in place. Is that correct?
Dr Clayton-Greene : I am saying that if we bring fresh potatoes into the country, and because of the fact that we cannot detect the disease in the tubers nondestructively at this point in time, and we know that the disease has a certain level of incidence in potato crops, which can only be determined by destructive sampling, it is inevitable that potatoes will come into Australia that will have the disease. That is essentially what I am saying, based on our understanding of the disease at this point in time.
Mr BROADBENT: Destructive sampling means you would have to cut up every potato that came in, just to check.
Dr Clayton-Greene : Yes, you would have to cut them open.
Mr BROADBENT: Is a black chip destructive to your system?
Dr Clayton-Greene : Sorry?
Mr Mulcahy : To human health.
Dr Clayton-Greene : To human health, no. It is not believed that the chips themselves have any effect on human health. The issue is that people do not want to eat black chips.
Mr BROADBENT: I reckon!
Dr Clayton-Greene : And that is just because of the accumulation of sugars.
Mr BROADBENT: What is the movement of potatoes across our national borders? That is another issue.
Dr Clayton-Greene : At the present time there is no importation of fresh potatoes in to Australia.
Mr BROADBENT: The reason?
Dr Clayton-Greene : For a number of diseases. It depends on the country. There are a lot of diseases in potatoes we do not have that are found elsewhere in the world.
Mr BROADBENT: So is the government very secure on the fact that we do not bring potatoes into this country for the reasons of this disease, that disease or some other disease? Why are we getting these potatoes here at all? We have not yet?
Dr Clayton-Greene : We have not got them yet. I am not familiar to the background politics of it, but the proposal has come from New Zealand that we have the importation of potatoes from New Zealand into Australia for processing. That is my understanding of it. Richard may have further things.
Mr Mulcahy : And there are bound to be considerations of that. Biosecurity Australia obviously has to make an assessment. That being said, we have not heard from them since 11 July, when we met with them. We had that letter from the minister and the parliamentary secretaries talking about the processes coming soon, but we do not know when that is going to happen. Obviously we have expressed grave reservations that whatever process is in place there is a method of diagnostics. I would defer to your scientific skill, but I imagine that, until science can find some way of diagnosing the problem without destroying the product, we would be of the view that the risk is simply not worth taking. And they have acknowledged that, if they give the green light for these products to come into Australia, there will definitely be diseased potatoes coming in. The argument comes down to how well you can protect Australia.
Mr BROADBENT: You know very well it is more expensive to process food here than it is in New Zealand. If they did bring potatoes in and they were able to establish that we were not going to be affected by the numerous diseases that the doctor has put to us, how does that disease get from a processing plant to a grower like the ones you spoke to at Thorpdale two years ago?
Mr Mulcahy : There are multiple points. I might again defer to my colleague in terms of HACCP and all the points along the way.
Mr BROADBENT: When something comes in to be processed and the processors do know when a potato is infected—
Mr Mulcahy : They might not know till afterwards.
Mr BROADBENT: And you reckon it is not the first cook but the second cook that shows—
Dr Clayton-Greene : I do not want to tell you how to suck eggs—
Mr BROADBENT: No, tell me how to suck eggs. I am only a rural representative.
Dr Clayton-Greene : When you cook starch, it does not change colour. What we are talking about here is essentially build-up in the tuber of sugars which are a result of stressing the potato plant. Other things will cause that. Those sugars are what turn black when you cook them. It is just like caramelising. You have to get over 170 degrees or a figure around there to do that. So it is high-temperature processing that would cause them to go black. Without being cooked, you would just have dark brown colouration in them. If you cut a tuber in half, you will see a dark brown ring. That is the area equivalent in plants to the veins that feed them. The sugars accumulate in there. So that just appears as a dark brown colour. The problem with this disease—and this is why I am advocating caution—is that we do not know very much about it. We do not know enough about it. We know that e will be bringing imported potatoes with the disease in here. Although it is only believed to have one host, we do not know enough about the biology of the disease to be absolutely adamant. It is very hard to prove a negative.
Mr Mulcahy : We do not know the mode of transmission.
Dr Clayton-Greene : The mode of transmission is spatially very difficult to detect in plants at this stage. How you find it in plants is difficult. There is no accepted methodology.
The science is moving so quickly and there is so little understood about it. It just does not make sense to me to make risk analyses and do that sort of thing without understanding what you are trying to manage.
I will give you an example. When the disease was first detected, the test for detecting it used molecular biology, where you take DNA out of the plant, put it on a plate, look at it and compare it. It was not sensitive enough to pick up some of the levels of disease, so the disease was initially thought to be a bit like cancer: you either have it or you do not, if you do it is too bad and if you do not you are okay. Now, because we have much more sensitive tests, it is quite easy to find potatoes that are asymptomatic but still have the bacteria in them. It is like the flu. In other words, some people can get it and it will kill them, while other people can get it and it is not a problem.
There are levels of different disease in a plant. We do not yet understand where it is distributed in the plant and how it moves about. There are so many unknowns about it, and that is where the risk comes. To me it just does not make sense. The disease originated only 20 years ago and we do not even know how it originated, what caused it to develop and what there is to stop further changes in the pathotypes of the bacteria that enable it to adapt to something else. That is where the real cautionary principle comes in on this. At the moment we just do not understand the science, so I am not sure how we can manage the risk.
Mr Mulcahy : You might just want to explain to Mr Broadbent the scenario of how, if they were given the green light, it might affect, say, the folks at Thorpdale. In what sort of a scenario could it end up infecting those properties?
Mr BROADBENT: How does it get there? We are talking about a processed product, aren't we?
Dr Clayton-Greene : No, we are talking about fresh potatoes coming in. They have to be loaded in. Presumably they would come in a container and be shipped somewhere. The logical thing then would be to have some sort of hazard plan to identify all the various procedures from the time it gets loaded into the container in New Zealand and all the various points at which material could escape into the environment and how that can be controlled. That does not exist at the moment, and I am unaware of that sort of procedure being adopted in our approach to biosecurity full stop. If a hazard plan and hazard procedures are good enough for NASA I do not know why we do not do them. In another life I work for an exports company; we deal in produce and imports and we have to produce hazard plans for our customers. I do not see why we have not done that for these. We do not even know how those various control points have been properly identified and how we will manage them. It is a bit cavalier. So, yes, it could come in. Someone could decide that they want a few potatoes to take home, and there you go.
Mr Mulcahy : All human factors.
Dr Clayton-Greene : Things can go wrong. From my experience with a company that ships a lot of produce around the country I know very well that things go missing and I know very well that things can go wrong. It is a risk, and it gets to Thorpdale. How did PSA get into New Zealand? We do not even know that. Up until 1986 this disease was only found in North America. It crossed the Pacific and is now rampant there.
Mr BROADBENT: But did they import seed potatoes?
Dr Clayton-Greene : No. At the time it came into New Zealand there was a ban on importation of any potato material whatsoever, even in tissue culture.
Mr BROADBENT: If there is a ban today on potatoes coming from New Zealand into Australia, that is the strongest protection we could possible give biosecurity to work with. How do we defend ourselves against something if we do not know what we are defending ourselves against and if we already have a ban on it?
Dr Clayton-Greene : The proposal is that they change the ban. We are just saying that we think that is not a very sensible thing to do at this point. That is the bottom line.
Mr BROADBENT: But you are saying to me that the ban may be no defence. It was no defence to New Zealand against America.
Dr Clayton-Greene : That is what I am saying: we do not understand how it got there. People can bring stuff in illegally, can't they?
Mr VAN MANEN: Just to follow on, was North America the place that the disease was first discovered? In what other areas of the world does that disease exist?
Dr Clayton-Greene : It was first discovered in Central America, I believe, in Mexico. It has since been found in Honduras—
Mr Mulcahy : Southern United States. It did a lot of damage in Texas.
Dr Clayton-Greene : and Guatemala, and then it spread into New Mexico and Texas. Up until recently it was only found west of the Mississippi. It is carried every year by the winds out of the gulf up the western seaboard, through California and up to Oregon and Washington. In September it was recognised in Idaho. So it has now spread across the other side of the US.
Mr VAN MANEN: So what you are saying is it is wind borne.
Dr Clayton-Greene : The psyllid that carries the disease flies, and they are quite strong flyers. They can be wind borne and they can carry the disease quite long distances. The other problem with this disease, and what is seductive about it, is that it just looks like any other disorder in potatoes. So the problem is: how do you recognise it when you get it? The general consensus in New Zealand is that, although it was officially recognised in 2006, it had probably been there two or three years previously. People had ascribed what they were seeing in their plants to other factors and by the time they realised they had a problem it was beyond control. It is virtually impossible to control at this stage.
Mr Mulcahy : It spread from the north to the south island with increasing aggression.
Mr VAN MANEN: Does it affect all types of potatoes?
Dr Clayton-Greene : Yes. At this stage there is no natural genetic resistance. There is some variation in it. In terms of its effect on plants, it affects the whole solanaceous family—that is the nightshade family. It is devastating in tomatoes. The effect on tomatoes is the same as on potatoes. It reduces soluble solids and makes them not very good for processing. It is devastating in potatoes. It also affects capsicums, tamarilloes and eggplants, but to a lesser extent.
Mr Mulcahy : If I could add a supplementary comment, Mr Broadbent focused on an issue that is quite significant, and that is the cost of processing here versus in New Zealand. That is a very valid point about the cost of production, and this disease issue only reinforces it for us. We are not particularly worried about the competitive issue of potatoes coming in. I am not sure how viable this exercise is. Our fear, and this is being driven by our informed members, particularly across south-eastern Australia, is that when the cat is out of the bag the damage will be horrendous. The potato industry is a pretty volatile group. There are a lot of battles out there, but on this issue all of the processors—with the exception of one, who wants to bring the product in—and the fresh side of the industry are united in saying we have to stop this. They are fearful of having their livelihoods destroyed. The competitive pressure from potatoes coming in from New Zealand is not the driving consideration.
Mr VAN MANEN: What if the potatoes are processed in New Zealand and we are getting the processed product over here, albeit frozen, vacuum packed or something like that? Am I correct in understanding that there will still be the potential for diseases to come from that product as well?
Dr Clayton-Greene : At the moment we import frozen product from New Zealand and from other countries. That would not change. Yes, it is possible. Given the nature of the product we are bringing in at that point, it is far less of a risk because we are not bringing the whole product in. It is already partially processed, so it has a very short shelf life. So yes, it is feasible that that could happen, but at this stage I would say the risk of that is a lot less and, as I said, it is already happening. It is the fresh product that is the concern.
Mr Mulcahy : I think the french fries at McDonald's in Queensland and the Northern Territory—this information is about year old—come in from New Zealand because they could not source enough within Australia. It is the fresh product that has the industry very worried.
Mr SYMON: In regard to the insect, the psyllid, obviously they are all over the place, insects being insects. But does it only carry the disease in New Zealand? Does the insect already exist here? Could you explain what sort of insect it is? I am not an expert in this area.
Dr Clayton-Greene : Okay. The insects are called psyllids. They are a tiny little insect. They are about two millimetres long.
Mr SYMON: So is it like a gnat that flies around?
Dr Clayton-Greene : Do you know whitefly?
Mr SYMON: Yes, very well.
Dr Clayton-Greene : They look very much like a grey whitefly. If you look at them closely, they look like a tiny miniature cicada. They look pretty similar. You walk through a crop and these little grey things fly out.
Mr SYMON: Those insects are endemic to Australia?
Dr Clayton-Greene : No. There are many hundreds of species of psyllids, and we have a lot of native psyllids in Australia. I am not sure of the exact number, but we have a large number.
Mr SYMON: The ones in New Zealand are different?
Dr Clayton-Greene : The psyllid that is in New Zealand was introduced there from the United States or from North America. It got there. It was not a native psyllid.
Mr SYMON: And that carries the disease?
Dr Clayton-Greene : That carries the disease, which is a particular form of bacteria called liberibacter. The psyllids are called either 'hot' or 'cold'. If they are 'hot', they have got the disease; if they are 'cold', they haven't. Just the feeding of the psyllids themselves will create a disorder in the plants, but it is not necessarily fatal. But, if they are carrying the bacteria, the probability is that it can be fatal.
What we do not understand is how it then builds up in the plant and at what level it is fatal. All those sorts of things are just completely unknown at this stage. We—when I say 'we', I mean the people in New Zealand, who are probably doing the best research in the world on this at the moment—have only just recently, in the last 18 months, developed a really good diagnostic test which can now detect up to only three bacteria per sample. The problem we have is that we do not know how the disease developed. It is thought that it is only carried by this one sort of psyllid, but we really do not know whether Australian psyllids are capable of carrying the disease because it has never been, if you like, tested.
Mr SYMON: No cases have occurred here in fresh product?
Dr Clayton-Greene : No. And we do know also that there is a dissociated disorder called phytoplasma, which is found in New Zealand plants and is also spread by this psyllid. In developing diagnostics in case we do have an outbreak in Australia, we have tested a lot of crops in Australia to see if we have the disease. We do not, and we do not have any phytoplasma here either. So there are some other issues that come in. I guess the real risk is this. Yes, there is the potato issue, which you mentioned before, Mr Broadbent, but we also import tomatoes and we import eggplants and all these other things, and all these things can carry psyllids. They have green material on them, like truss tomatoes and stuff like that.
Mr SYMON: They are imported now?
Dr Clayton-Greene : We are importing them now under different sets of regulations.
Mr SYMON: From New Zealand?
Dr Clayton-Greene : We import tomatoes from New Zealand, and capsicums, and they come—
Mr SYMON: What is being done in that area at the moment for control?
Dr Clayton-Greene : Presumably there are controls on the imports of those. But, once again, they are only based on a 600-thing sample. So it is complex. There is the potential for it to come in and we know that it will come in on potatoes if we bring them in, at the moment. There is the potential that the insects could come in via some other product or nursery products.
Mr SYMON: So it is all an unknown.
Dr Clayton-Greene : The probabilities there to me just do not stack up, I am afraid. There are just too many risks involved and too little known about it to make any common sense whatsoever.
Mr SYMON: I have a question that is probably more for you, Mr Mulcahy, about the supply of potatoes in Australia. Do we grow enough for our own domestic use? As you mentioned before, McDonald's have been importing. Where is the pressure coming from in the market for the importation, if, as I suspect, there is enough produced locally?
Mr Mulcahy : At the present time there is actually a significant oversupply. In the last few weeks, I think, or the last week or so, we have seen media reports about growers in North Queensland ploughing potatoes into the ground. There is an oversupply in South Australia.
We are a supply demand driven industry. There were adverse weather events last summer which impacted on the supply out of Tasmania. I think we had about $70 million worth of damage there. You heard all about Queensland. There was not much coverage on Tasmania, but there was a lot of damage. So there have been periods when the industry has not had capacity to meet demand, and that is where you have that sort of McDonald's scenario, where McCain or Simplot, who were supplying them, have had to source french fries elsewhere. But right now prices are extraordinarily depressed across not just potatoes but the vegetables, which we represent as well. It is a situation that fluctuates very much—a free-market arrangement in which we live.
But I emphasise that our position is not based on some form of latter-day protectionism. I think there is questionable economics in anyone bringing the product over from New Zealand for processing.
Mr SYMON: I was going to ask about that, because a potato is fairly low value for what you sell. A full container is probably not worth that many dollars in overall terms.
Mr Mulcahy : I do not understand the economics. I do not know if there is a desire to break down barriers to entry. New Zealand is always keen to be able to export wherever they like. Our concern is the potential destruction of a lot of our growers' businesses and livelihoods. That is really what we are on about here.
Mr SYMON: If we are getting frozen product imported, I presume there must have been instances of consumers ringing up complaints lines saying, 'My chips have turned black.' Has that happened already?
Mr Mulcahy : I do not know.
Mr SYMON: It will happen because, if an affected product is in frozen imports, a bag of chips, and you do not know, sooner or later someone is going to cook those up and find that some are not as good as the others.
Dr Clayton-Greene : The only thing I would say to that is that it is quite possible that has happened and some people might have rung up and complained, but I would not know. You would have to ask the people who utilised the material. However, the way it is controlled in New Zealand—and this is why it is particularly damaging to the industry at the moment—is that when loads come into the factory to be processed from growers they do a fry-up. If they then detect them there, they do not process them. They go back to the grower.
Mr SYMON: That would increase their costs.
Dr Clayton-Greene : Absolutely. Let us not be coy about this. There are several significant people who have gone out of business in New Zealand because of this disease.
Mr BROADBENT: What about in other areas of production such as tomatoes, capsicums and eggplants?
Dr Clayton-Greene : It is the same thing. I am not as au fait with the tomato industry because I am not au fait with processing tomatoes, but my understanding is that they control it and they have got a better handle on it. To put it in context, in New Zealand at the moment most tomato and potato crops are now receiving something in the order of 20 insecticide sprays per crop, which is adding an enormous cost to the production, to say nothing of all the environmental issues associated with that. That is the only way it is controlled.
Mr BROADBENT: We have got to get back to some basics like intensive planting of one crop, improper rotation and improper practices over time. Have we broken some rules somewhere? What you are describing to me is huge damage to the New Zealand growers caused by this disease, which they do not know about, and the threat that it could come into this country and damage our growers in the exactly the same way. What you are telling me is that we do not know what to do about it except leave the bans in place, and the bans did not work in New Zealand. It is not a very great scenario you have brought in this morning!
Dr Clayton-Greene : Quite frankly it is not a great scenario. We are not only talking about New Zealand here. Let's be honest: it has caused enormous problems in the United States. It is a massive issue in Texas and it has cost millions and millions of dollars. Wherever this disease has broken out the situation has been exactly the same. There is initially a massive loss in the industry. It is gradually brought under control but still causes a massive amount of loss and extra cost to the industry.
Mr BROADBENT: Are you sure it is a disease?
Dr Clayton-Greene : Absolutely. There is not any argument about the disease and how it is transmitted. We do not understand a lot about it, but it is certainly a disease. If we take the case in the US, we know that these things have got host plants and that a few last over winter, but basically every time warm air comes up from the Gulf of Mexico it takes a huge swarm of these things from Texas right up the western seaboard of the United States and within a month everybody has got a massive amount of psyllid infection. The Americans do rotations and farming practices very well. They are the most efficient large-scale producers of potatoes in the world.
Mr BROADBENT: Is that the problem?
Dr Clayton-Greene : I think I see where you are going. Two years ago in New Zealand the biggest and hottest topic in the country's gardening magazines and on gardening shows was the loss of people's tomatoes in their backyards from this insect.
These are people who grow it in their home garden; they want tomatoes in their backyard, and they cannot grow them. I come from New Zealand. My sister has a garden and she has it netted with insect proof nets so she can grow tomatoes, because there are these things every year.
Mr VAN MANEN: I would like to follow up on Mr Broadbent's point because I think it is very relevant. We are constantly providing the environment and not rotating crops within the same family, because obviously you have a problem in the nightshade family with this disease. If you are putting a totally different crop in there which is unrelated to this family, will that break down the life cycle of this disease and of this psyllid? That is, I think, the point that Mr Broadbent is trying to get at.
Mr BROADBENT: I was not that bright, Burt, but thanks!
Dr Clayton-Greene : No; that is the short answer to your question. Let us take Tasmania. Most people there are on a five-year rotation. Without wanting to be insulting, given that these things can spread long distances I would say that the only way you could do what you are suggesting would be to stop cropping in the country for four or five years and remove all the host plants as well. There are over 150 host plants already recognised for this insect which are non-commercial and which are where these things reside. I am not trying to be a smart alec, but—
Mr BROADBENT: Are you about to close us down?
Dr Clayton-Greene : The answer in short is no—without shutting down large areas of the industry in Australia to solanaceous crops. I do not think that that is a viable option anyway, because it is hosted in other plants. Weeds are a particular problem for it because there are a lot of solanaceous weeds that we do not control. We have a lot of native solanaceous plans as well, and we do not know the effect on those at all.
Mr BROADBENT: Thank you very much, Richard and Kevin, for coming in. However, you have told us the problem but have not suggested a response.
Dr Clayton-Greene : Can I answer that, Richard?
Mr Mulcahy : Sure.
Dr Clayton-Greene : My response is that at this point in time we should maintain our existing quarantine procedures, that they should be reviewed in the light of new information that comes to light as we understand this disease, that they should be regularly updated by Biosecurity Australia in the form of risk analyses and proper hazard procedures and that, as we understand the disease better, we should review whether our existing quarantine procedures are adequate. I would argue that they are possibly not even adequate at the moment even with a ban in place.
Mr BROADBENT: Are you going to have some input into that review?
Mr Mulcahy : We hope so. We were initially told that we would have 60 days to consult with them and then we were told it would be 30 days, but we have had absolutely no advice since 11 July other than those two fairly pro forma letters. We had advice yesterday that Biosecurity Australia and people out of DAFF are meeting New Zealand officials in a bilateral meeting in four days' time to advise the ministry of agriculture in New Zealand of their progress on this matter.
I expressed the view in writing to a large number of people yesterday that I would have thought it might be appropriate to brief the Australian industry on the state of their progress, and I am amazed that we would only be advised of an international meeting of this nature three or four days out. I cannot imagine that it was set up on that level of notice, but industry input to that agenda on a range of agricultural issues was only sought yesterday. We are disappointed in that and I am hoping that we will have input, but I suspect that we are going to get it on a very tight time frame.
CHAIR: To clarify: Biosecurity Australia have not given you any indication of when they are going to release their draft import conditions for stakeholders?
Mr Mulcahy : I cannot recall the precise time line, but I understood that it was going to be within a month or two of those discussions on 11 July.
Dr Clayton-Greene : A few weeks.
Mr Mulcahy : Yes, within a few weeks—and here we are now in December. In some ways I would probably be quite happy if they did not move further, because the mindset we sense is that they are very keen to bring in the product; but sooner or later this bridge has to be crossed.
CHAIR: Mr Mulcahy, I again encourage you, as the principal petitioner for this petition—armed with the letter which the trade minister sent to me and which was forwarded to you dated 20 September—to contact Biosecurity Australia to clarify where they are with regard to the review of the whole process.
I thank you for your evidence. If we have any further questions we will certainly be in touch with you. If you want to put anything further before the committee, please feel free to do so. You will get a copy of the Hansard transcript to check that your remarks have been faithfully recorded for the purposes of this hearing. I thank you once again for your attendance today.