Quarantine law protectionism

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I thought that Australia’s quarantine laws on imported food were about avoiding disease. But perhaps I was naive. The opposition leader Tony Abbott comments here.

He said it was imperative food quarantine laws were not relaxed to allow easier delivery of imported fruit.

The banana industry, he said, must remains fully protected.

Mr Abbott pointed out there would be a shortage of bananas for some time.

The short-term pain of a lack of supply was easily outweighed by the long-term gain of protecting the country’s banana growers, Mr Abbott said.

“For quite a few months to come, shoppers right around Australia will notice bananas will be pretty hard to come by,” Mr Abbott said.

“Around Tully, this cyclone has been every bit as serious as Cyclone Larry.

“We’ve got to continue to preserve the Australian banana industry and the last thing I would want to see is anyone using a banana shortage as a justification for changing our banana quarantine rules.

“We’ve got to preserve this industry for the long haul and the best way to do that is to keep a strong quarantine system in place.”

Hmmmmm. This all sounds suspiciously like economic protectionism to me. Now there may be a case for economic assistance by the government to banana growers who have been affected by the cyclone. But lots of other agricultural sectors that are no where near North Queensland also have quarantine laws. Perhaps it is time to look at which of these are really justified on health grounds, and which are just a convenient replacement for tariffs and quotas.

9 Responses to "Quarantine law protectionism"
  1. I remember first hearing about this when a representative from a farmers lobby group was on ABC radio saying we shouldn’t be importing bananas from the Philippines because of disease. Maybe I have a trade bias but I’m always suspicious when an trade sensitive sector lobbies for import restrictions whatever merits.

  2. Quarantine is both. By importing and spreading disease, we not only destroy our nation’s fragile economy, we also wipe our local industry. Anybody who puts money over our ecology is selfish, greedy and doesn’t give a hoot about anybody or anything but their own bank account.

  3. A little bit of research would indicate that disease is a very serious issue for bananas. Some quotes from the Wikipedia article on Banana, but there is more on this from plenty of other sources if you don’t like Wikipedia:

    In global commerce, by far the most important cultivars belong to the triploid AAA group of Musa acuminata, commonly referred to as Cavendish group bananas. They account for the majority of banana exports.[30] The cultivars Dwarf Cavendish and Grand Nain (Chiquita Banana) gained popularity in the 1950s after the previous mass-produced cultivar, Gros Michel (also an AAA group cultivar), became commercially unviable due to Panama disease, a fungus which attacks the roots of the banana plant.[30]
    Ease of transport and shelf life rather than superior taste make the Dwarf Cavendish the main export banana.
    Even though it is no longer viable for large scale cultivation, Gros Michel is not extinct and is still grown in areas where Panama disease is not found.[citation needed] Likewise, Dwarf Cavendish and Grand Nain are in no danger of extinction, but they may leave supermarket shelves if disease makes it impossible to supply the global market. It is unclear if any existing cultivar can replace Cavendish bananas, so varioushybridisation and genetic engineering programs are attempting to create a disease-resistant, mass-market banana.

    According to current sources, a deadly form of Panama disease is infecting Cavendish. All plants are genetically identical, which prevents evolution of disease resistance. Researchers are examining hundreds of wild varieties for resistance.

    TR4 is a reinvigorated strain of Panama disease first discovered in 1993. This virulent form of fusarium wilt has wiped out Cavendish in several southeast Asian countries.
    Why anyone would think that a statement from Tony Abbott on any technical issue would stand up without a least a quick fact-check leaves me perplexed. His performance during the election when interviewed by Kerry O’Brien on the Internet and broadband showed his complete lack of knowledge and one assumes that his staff actually briefed him in detail before the interview. To expect him to understand agricultural issues or anything outside the nitty-gritty of politics and perhaps Catholic catechism would seem to be a big ask.
    Perhaps some farmers use quarantine restrictions as a form of trade barrier, but there are clear scientific reasons for many of the quarantine restrictions we have in Australia and perhaps its best to look in to these before putting one’s suspicions into print.
     

  4. It is true that the risk of agricultural disease is real. (I actually don’t the know the specific risk posed to local industry from imported bananas.)
    However Abbott’s comments do not make a single reference to plant diseases. The language is that of a old-time populist protectionist interested in vote-winning.

  5. There’s another thing, too.  It is not obvious that Australia as a whole would not be better off having no banana industry anyway and importing them from our northern neighbours, in which case we’d be better off with no banana quarantine.  They can grow them much cheaper than we can (and provide greater variety too).  Our own farmers could then use those fertile soils and high rainfall to grow other things.

    There’s no ecological issue in this case – Panama disease is species-specific.  No bananas, no Panama disease. 

  6. DP
    Yes, from reading Tony Abbott’s statement, you would think it was all about protecting the banana farmers and that alone, the follow on from that, is how likely is that a statement from Tony Abbott is going to be accurate on a technical matter as opposed to a calculation about whether it benefits him politically, Abbott is an excellent political operative, but he’s a policy vacuum, which would seem to invalidate making any conclusions based upon a statement from him on something like this.
     
    DD
    what evidence is there that bananas can be grown more efficiently elsewhere? Cyclones aside, bananas are one of the cheapest fruits to be bought in the supermarket (sub $2.00 per kilo since December) and it’s quite clear that Australian fruit farmers are competitive with international imports if we look at the wide variety of fruit that doesn’t have quarantine restrictions but are still retained as an industry in Australia. So when you say it’s not obvious on what do you base this? Of course it would be better if we didn’t need the quarantine restrictions, but before I would abandon an entire industry, I’d like a bit more evidence.
     
    DP
    Yes, in fact we already have the virulent Tropical Race 4 Panama disease in Australia and it wiped out the Northern Territory banana industry
    http://www.abc.net.au/am/content/2007/s2061659.htm
    but it’s not elsewhere in Australia and the other strains are far less virulent, though no less deadly apparently
    http://www.dpi.nsw.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0006/348900/panama-disease-in-bananas.pdf
    but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be managed as witnessed by the fact we still have a banana industry.
     
    Now perhaps, importing bananas doesn’t actually increase the risk significantly, not being an agricultural scientist I don’t know, but given bananas highly unusual genetic makeup, it’s clearly something to be very careful of. My point was that Stephen made a pretty big leap based on an unreliable source when the fruit in question with even a modicum of research can be found to have serious disease issues. If you also factor in the recent decision on NZ apples through the WTO, it’s clear that the use of quarantine as a trade barrier will be challenged by overseas exporters if there is a case for it and the Phillipines haven’t seemed to have got very far with any appeals.
     
    So maybe it’s a trade barrier, maybe it’s economically justifiable quarantine protection, but answering that based on a Abbot interview seems pretty flimsy to me.
     
     

  7. Martin –

    Surely the question is not whether Australian bananas are cheaper than other Australian fruit but whether they’re cheaper than overseas bananas.  Now that’s an empiric question, and I agree that you’d want to settle it and some related questions before basing policy on it.  My point was simply that preserving the Australian banana industry was not AUTOMATICALLY a Good Thing, anymore than preserving the Australian car industry is.  And one of the things to be put on the “Cost” side of the ledger is the need for quarantine policies.

    Other than that you’re right – sensible people just ignore the Mad Monk’s opinions on policy.

  8. Malcolm – Rising banana prices due to domestic shortage and not allowing cheaper imports will not help the cyclone affected growers since they have no bananas to sell! The biggest beneficiaries of the higher prices are the less efficient banana growers in norther NSW, and they were nowhere near the cyclone. Whenever Qld bananas are devastated by cyclones the NSW growers laugh all the way to the bank, and consumers cry all the way to the super markets! Sounds silly to me.

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