The fire blight risk

The fire blight riskBy Kendrea Rhodes

Australia has long been known as a country with strict quarantine laws. Laws designed to prevent the introduction of human, animal or plant diseases and pests. These laws have served us well in escaping many crises, such as rabies, foot and mouth, and fire blight – until now. If we could turn back time, we’d say no to rabbits, cane toads, foxes and blackberries; so orchardists Australia wide are asking, why are we saying yes to fire blight now?

It is understood that the Australian Government, after a World Trade Organisation ruling, has promised to reduce the Australian quarantine protocols for New Zealand apple growers, to a level far lower than desired by Australian apple growers. The main problem with this is the fact that endemic to New Zealand is the world’s number one feared apple and pear disease: fire blight – a disease that Australia does not have.
Greg Cramond is the fifth generation of an apple and pear growing family in Basket Range. For the last ten years he has been involved in horticultural research and is currently the CEO of the Apple and Pear Growers Association of South Australia.

Greg knows the Adelaide Hills and from his extensive travels, he knows fire blight. It’s a bacterial disease with a number of host plants in the Rosaceae family including apples, pears, quinces, hawthorn and some roses. There is no cure, it can kill trees, is expensive to treat and spreads quickly through contact. Just a small part of the infected plant could spread the disease rapidly throughout an entire orchard. Pears in particular are susceptible to this disease.

Greg says that of the many countries in the world with fire blight, none have eradicated it. Count in that tally all of Europe, the Middle East, the UK, the USA and New Zealand. He explained that contrary to popular belief, China does not have fire blight. But they must still adhere to the stringent import requirements, in excess of what is being proposed for New Zealand apples. Chinese apple juice has been sold in Australia for more than two decades and fresh apples from China started arriving here last year. Also, contrary to popular belief, New Zealand apples aren’t actually banned here, he said. They can in fact be imported, they just have to pass the current quarantine laws – laws designed to protect Australia – for good reason. It is these quarantine protocols that apple growers don’t want to see being relaxed.

Fighting fire blight requires intense and expensive control measures to monitor and contain. The most effective method of controlling fire blight is an expensive antibiotic called Streptomycin sulphate, which incidentally, is not registered in Australia for use on plants. Greg said that it’s not registered because we have not needed it in this country ever before.

There’s a lot of information about fire blight on the internet and in fact, on the State Government’s Primary Industries website it states that, “Fire Blight seriously effects fruit production worldwide”. On the Federal Governments website for the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, it states that, “The impact of fire blight in Australia is likely to be very high”.

Greg said, about the Government’s proposal for more relaxed quarantine laws for New Zealand apples, “I don’t believe in taking a path of least resistance [in the name of free trade] as it only takes one piece of infected leaf or twig in a box … their protocols [proposed new quarantine laws] do not provide the best scrutiny to find the bacteria”. He also said “I am worried for the first State in Australia who gets this disease as [I believe] their apple exports to the rest of Australia will be instantly cut off … but New Zealand’s won’t be”.

Jamie Briggs MP, Federal Member for Mayo, said the Federal Coalition are seeking the ability for the Parliament to overturn the Government’s decision to downgrade quarantine protocols for New Zealand apples. He said, “the Coalition has introduced a Private Member’s Bill to safeguard Australia’s apples against fire blight”. The Bill is being introduced by the Shadow Minister for Agriculture and Food Security, The Hon. John Cobb MP in the next few weeks and it will pass if it is supported by the Independents and the Greens.

Mark Goldsworthy MP, State Member for Kavel said, “this has the potential to be an absolute disaster for the Australian apple and pear industry”.
On Thursday the 29th of July, a protest rally was held in Lenswood in an attempt to dissuade Biosecurity Australia (a unit within the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry) from relaxing the quarantine controls for New Zealand apples.

Kym Green (pictured right) is a fifth generation orchardist from Lenswood who spoke at the rally. He said that his family has fought drought, flood, fire, world wars and depression. But politics might be the thing that destroys the Green family’s way of life. Kym also fears the increase in costs associated with the threat of fire blight.

Constant monitoring is required, constant pruning, burning infected pieces and other expensive control measures that will be born by the orchardist, not the government. Kym said, “the guts of the whole protest is that we want the Government to tighten inspections of New Zealand apples, because of the risk of fire blight”.

Cathie Boerth (formerly Sickerdick) works at Filsell’s apple orchard in Forest Range. This mother of three fears the loss of her job, due to financial losses that may face the orchard if fire blight spreads to Australia. Cathie is not alone. Families and businesses throughout the Adelaide Hills rely on the workers and orchards in the area.

Home gardeners take note, you are not excluded from this list, for fire blight will not discriminate. It just wants a nice host rose bush, quince or apple tree to infect.

Do we really want this?

Notwithstanding everything just said, aren’t we trying to reduce food miles? Reduce pollution? Isn’t that what the new Carbon Tax is trying to achieve? If so, then why is the Government encouraging apples from thousands of kilometres away, when we have brilliant ones on our doorstep?
You can help by writing to your local State and Federal members, write to the Federal Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry – Senator the Hon. Joe Ludwig, sign petitions and stand up to be counted. As Kym Green said, “it’s the apple and pear industry today, but who will it be tomorrow?”

1. – The APVMA is an Australian government authority responsible for the assessment and registration of Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines.

2. – Primary Industries and Resources SA. Fire blight awareness sheet.

3. – The Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, AQIS document, “Final import risk analysis of the NZ request for the access of apples into Australia.”

4. – APAL is the peak industry body representing the interests of commercial apple and pear growers in Australia.