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Wednesday, 23 June 2010
Page: 6441


Mr KELVIN THOMSON (11:11 AM) —The Agricultural and Veterinary Chemicals Code Amendment Bill 2010 consists of two measures that seek to improve efficiencies in the way that chemicals are registered with the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority, the APVMA , without jeopardising human health or the environment. The government is working with state and territory governments to develop a single national regulatory framework for agricultural and veterinary chemicals. This forms part of COAG’s seamless national economy initiative. Going to one of the areas in which it seeks to cut red tape, it clarifies what constitutes confidential commercial information when applying for certain types of permits for chemical use. It allows the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority to use information in a permit application that is not commercially sensitive when assessing an application. Currently, all matters about a permit application are deemed confidential commercial information, including the very fact that an application has been made. It is true that some permit applications to use agricultural and veterinary chemicals include some commercially valuable information. However, clearly not all information needs to be protected in the same inflexible way.

The current legislation forces the APVMA and industry to enter a complex and inefficient process. The APVMA first seeks the applicant’s approval before seeking information from the product registrant, or others, to inform its expert assessment of minor use or emergency use permit applications. This places a substantial burden on industry and it limits the authority’s ability to engage openly with others who may be seeking similar permits at the same time. The paperwork, consultation and other aspects of these similar permits could be streamlined under these changes.

I think that the bill’s theme of protecting human health and the environment is important. I say this because we need to address shortcomings in the current system that have resulted in the risk of pesticide pollution particularly, in my view, in relation to the Great Barrier Reef. I point out to the House that the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, in its Great Barrier Reef outlook report 2009, indicated that nearly one-third of the Great Barrier Reef, especially inshore, is now exposed to herbicides. Seven main herbicides are in widespread use throughout the Great Barrier Reef catchment and are being widely detected in fresh and marine waters of the Great Barrier Reef region. The herbicides are diuron, atrazine, ametryn, simazine, hexazinone, 2,4-D and tebuthiuron.

The Queensland government and Premier Anna Bligh have made the following important observations:

Land derived contaminants, including suspended sediments, nutrients and pesticides are present in the Great Barrier Reef—

the Great Barrier Reef—

at concentrations likely to cause environmental harm.

Also:

Chemical residues at biologically harmful concentrations have been found in the marine waters of the Reef up to 60km offshore.

Further:

The science is clear. The Reef’s health is suffering long-term decline from soil, fertilisers and pesticides washing from the mainland.

According to a report by CropLife Australia in June 2009, Great Barrier Reef: the impact of pesticides:

Sometimes pesticides do find their way into rivers and streams. Pesticide concentrations in some rivers draining into the Great Barrier Reef do also periodically exceed the draft guidelines levels.

Pesticides that are inappropriately applied, as well as pesticides that are properly applied may - in some circumstances - find their way into streams and rivers and ultimately end up in the GBR where they may present a risk to the health of the reef.

Recent studies have investigated the load of pesticides that are entering the GBR lagoon from river systems draining GBR catchments. These studies have highlighted that large and potentially damaging volumes of pesticides are transported to the reef lagoon during heavy rainfall events.

After river floods, elevated concentrations of herbicide residues persist in the Great Barrier Reef lagoon for several weeks. These residues have the capacity to produce cumulative chronic effects on sensitive species of marine plants and corals and may cause a change in the community structure of mangroves, seagrass and coral reef ecosystems.

It is appropriate, I think, and timely that Australia’s pesticide regulatory arrangements are currently being reviewed for COAG. WWF, in a submission to the review of the APVMA, say that they believe that Australia’s farm chemical regulator has not been responsive enough to health and environmental risks and should not be given extended powers without far greater safeguards and budgets. They have been concerned about this question of addressing chemical pollution of the Great Barrier Reef. One of the WWF spokespersons in Australia, Juliette King, says, ‘At least eight chemicals have been under review for more than 13 years.’ That is, of course, an extremely long time.

One of the chemicals they are concerned about, endosulfan, has been banned in over 60 countries but remains approved for use in Australia. On 10 June, just recently, the United States banned this toxic insecticide, concluding that endosulfan can cause nerve damage and reproductive complications in farm workers and is also a hazard to wildlife. Endosulfan is widely used in some Australian crops such as cotton, macadamia and horticultural crops. It has recently been implicated in fish deformities in a Noosa River fish hatchery, and it is being considered for a global ban under the Stockholm convention. I think that as a matter of priority Australia needs to be looking at this highly toxic chemical and making sure that we are keeping in step with developments in the rest of the world.

The toxic pesticide diuron has been under review since 2002. There have been interim findings of unacceptable risks to seagrass and dugongs in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, but it remains available for sale. Another toxic pesticide, atrazine, has been banned in Europe since 2007, but it is still widely available in Australia. It is one of the chemicals which has been detected up to 60 kilometres into the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage area. WWF has said:

The lack of action to deregister these dangerous chemicals suggests the APVMA—

the authority—

gives the benefit of any doubt to the pesticide industry rather than to Australians and their environment …

… Currently only about one per cent of pesticide revenues is spent ensuring they are safe.

That is something that the WWF are concerned about. They say that this ‘is not the fault of farming communities’, but we need to ‘catch up with the rest of the world’. They say:

Many farmers want to do the right thing but they need better choices.

They also suggest:

We need a cost recovery system that is commensurate with risk - where the registration, assessment, monitoring, evaluation of chemicals, and their cost recovery, encourages innovative lower risk products and deters the continued sale of dangerous chemicals.

The WWF are supportive of the precautionary approach, which gives the benefit of the doubt to human health and to the environment rather than to the pesticide industry. They say:

We need a system that is more transparent, more independent and one that encourages agricultural innovation and the development of low risk chemical products.

The WWF submission includes a number of recommendations which it believes would improve the regulatory framework. First, the WWF recommends that Australia adopt a re-registration system for chemicals as is currently the case in the European Union, with the re-registration time frame dependent on a chemicals risk rating—for example, five years if it is high risk, 10 years if it is medium risk and 15 years if it is low risk. Risk rating should be conducted by an independent science panel using factors such as quantity sold, regulatory action taken internationally, peer reviewed research and incidents demonstrating risks, such as fish kills.

Second, the WWF recommends that the chemical review program be retained and used either to review chemicals in between re-registration time frames, where necessary—that is, for emergencies—or for reviewing classes of chemicals collectively or the cumulative impacts of likely chemical combinations. Third, it recommends that there be introduced statutory time frames for the completion of chemical reviews—for example, two years—that may only be extended in certain circumstances. Fourth, the WWF recommends that the obligation on the authority to find a risk mitigation solution before it can deregister a chemical be removed.

Fifth, the WWF recommends that a requirement for the authority to apply the established precautionary principle when making decisions about the likely harmful impacts to human beings or the environment be introduced. Sixth, it recommends that third-party appeal rights be included in the Agricultural and Veterinary Chemicals Code, with extended standing for environmental and human health advocates. Seventh, it recommends that the information relating to the human health and environmental impacts of a chemical be exempt from the commercial secrecy provisions of the code.

Eighth, the WWF recommends that the direct link between chemicals sold and the authority’s revenue be severed—for example, by removing the funding collection role and having its budget administered by a separate body such as the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry—and that the authority’s income be significantly increased over the next five to 10 years through increased fees and levies for pesticide registrants. The WWF believes that the new revenue arrangements should be introduced to encourage the innovation of low-risk chemicals—for example, higher fees and shorter registration tenures for high-risk chemicals and low fees and longer tenures for low-risk chemicals. Finally, the WWF proposes that a proportion of the authority’s income be invested into a blind trust for public interest research into the human health and environmental impacts of chemicals.

The Australian people would expect our pesticide regulator to have robust powers to take action where a chemical is likely to have a harmful effect on human beings or on the environment. The authority has the power to suspend or deregister a chemical directly, but it appears that this regulatory tool has rarely been used. The authority is funded almost entirely by the pesticide industry, with its funding directly linked to the number and commercial success of chemicals registered in Australia. It would be a matter of concern if this was creating a perverse disincentive for the authority to deregister chemicals. The recommendations that are suggested and proposed by the WWF are designed to enhance the regulatory framework which is required.

As I indicated at the outset, this bill represents some significant steps forward. The measures which are part of the bill which amend the schedule should have the impact of improving the efficiency of the registration processes and should have positive impacts in relation to the way in which the industry functions and also in relation to human health and the environment. I am pleased that a review is being undertaken of these matters and I look forward to the government’s response to that review in due course. I commend the bill to the House.