Oz tries new tack in NZ potato war

Last updated 11:39 06/09/2012

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A cartoon portraying Australian prime minister Julia Gillard and senior ministers Joe Ludwig and Craig Emerson as children playing a video game has been launched by the potato industry as part of its war to block imports of New Zealand potatoes.

AUSVEG, an industry body representing Australia's 9000 vegetable growers has been fighting a biosecurity proposal to lift a 24-year import ban - under strict quarantine rules - in response to a six-year campaign to allow New Zealand potatoes to be processed into chips here.

The industry fears its crops could be devastated by zebra chip disease if the ban is lifted.

The government says the potatoes would be under strict biosecurity control and blocking such trade would be detrimental to Australia's exports.

The import of fresh potatoes for human consumption and for processing is currently prohibited from all countries and there have been no imports from New Zealand since 1988.

Zebra chip disease affects the starch and sugar levels in potatoes, in turn affecting taste and appearance, making them unfit for sale. Australia's A$614 million ($787 million) potato industry is currently free of the disease.

Submissions on the draft decision closed on Monday and today AUSVEG launched an online video showing Gillard, Trade Minister Emerson and Agriculture Minister Ludwig playing a Space Invaders-style video game between the two countries with a tally of the number of potatoes destroyed.

They are all shown as children, with Dr Emerson picking his nose and Senator Ludwig wearing a "ban live exports" T-shirt.

AUSVEG public affairs manager William Churchill said the industry was angry that the government had not blocked the import proposal.

Along with the potato industry, the tomato, vegetable, ginger, pineapple, apple and pear industries had complained about "the lack of scientific rigour applied to imports of fresh produce", labelling the department's biosecurity's import risk analyses as "selective".

Dr Vanessa Findlay, chief plant protection officer with the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, said Zebra chip disease had been monitored for five years.

Since 2010, 13,000 tonnes of New Zealand tomatoes and capsicums, also susceptible to the disease, have been imported, under strict biosecurity rules, with no detection of the psyllid (the insect that can carry the disease) or the bacteria.

"Clearly science is not on their side; they are now mounting an emotional argument," Findlay said.

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She said import rules for potatoes would be even more stringent, with potatoes only leaving quarantine control when in a frozen bag at the supermarket.

"It is an industry under pressure. I think they are just trying to run an emotional campaign, which is quite distressing for all Australians given that Australia's prosperity is based on rigorous scientifically based trade.

"Australia exports two-thirds of its agricultural produce and we can be certain if Australia diverged from scientifically based trade our trading partners would return the favour and all of a sudden we would have an agriculture industry with a glut of product and nowhere to sell it."

Last August, Australia lifted a 90-year ban on New Zealand apple imports, fanning similar fears from the domestic apple and pear industry about the risk of diseases including fire blight. By October nearly a quarter of New Zealand apple imports had been rejected.

Independent senator Nick Xenophon backed AUSVEG's calls for the government to urgently intervene, as well as for a Senate committee to investigate.

Shadow Agriculture Minister John Cobb said that he was staggered by Dr Findlay's comments.

"When people like the chief plant protection officer make snide comments about the industry's concerns, I am yet to be convinced that they [the department] have addressed their issue seriously. And that can only come from the Minister," Cobb said.

"If I was minister no public servant in my department would ever make a comment as frivolous as that about a legitimate concern of the industry."

- Sydney Morning Herald

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