The plan for yesterday was to write about what I had been doing (spending a week in San Francisco) and what I had been reading (Plenty by Gay Bilson) but that was before I read the morning paper.The article which caught my attention was entitled 'Crunch time as apple growers wait on import ruling'. In summary Australian apple growers are expecting to hear soon from the World Trade Organisation as to whether or not they (the WTO) will approve the export of apples from New Zealand to Australia. The article suggests that growers are primarily concerned about the risk of introducing Fire Blight, an infection which is described as 'the foot- and- mouth disease of horticulture', into Australia and the effect this would have on their future.
Like many newspaper articles the information presented raised more questions than it answered so I set out to try and educate myself on this issue.
I am in no way qualified to ague the pros and cons of an international body which regulates trade nor any sort of expert on how that body works. However it appears that in this case the New Zealanders have 'complained' about the existing 'phytosanitary' measures which Australia applies to the importation of apples from New Zealand. This complaint was made back in August 2007 and it is only now that the WTO is ready to give its findings.(See here for a summary of the goings on.) . The WTO regulations do allow countries to put their case as to why certain products should be restricted and in this case Australia has argued for the present restrictions to remain in force on the basis of biosecurity.
At the moment Australia does allow the importation of apples from Japan and New Zealand and pears from China subject to quarantine policies. Biosecurity Australia is also in the process of considering the importation of apples from China. (China is the world's largest producer of apples (26 million tonnes in 2006), accounting for around 50% of global apple production, of which they only export about 3%. These figures are taken from Biosecurity Australia's Issues Paper July 2008).
According to the newspaper growers are 'aleady struggling with an oversupply of apples on the domestic market' and apparently we have not imported any apples despite the policies which would allow that to happen. Over the period 2003-2008 Australia exported 3,351,113 kilos of apples but I have no idea what proportion this is of our total apple production (see here).
What I still haven't discovered is why New Zealand wants to export it's apples to Australia. If they have a glut of apples too then obviously they would want to off- load them but why do they imagine Australia would want to buy them? Do they intend to try to sell off their surplus at ridiculous prices? Are they just interested in the principles involved? If the WTO finds in New Zealand's favour then they can export apples to Australia but we don't have to import them. Similarly the claim by Australian apple growers that 'we'll see Chinese apples here by Christmas' is only valid if an Australian food distributor/retailer decides to import them. The Chinese/New Zealanders won't send boat loads of apples just in the hope that someone might buy them?
It appears that the WTO has already communicated its decision to the Australian and New Zealand governments and the gossip is that they have found in favour of New Zealand. As far as I can tell no official announcement will be made until the Australian government has had the opportunity to review the decision and make any corrections to the data already presented.
Local growers are surely right to be concerned about the possibility of Fire Blight being introduced into this country and the consequences for their business. That New Zealand's complain has required a complex investigation is evidenced by the time it has taken for the matter to be resolved. I still don't understand why we would need to import apples from anywhere or why anyone would want to but I suppose if we are already bringing in asparagus from Peru and fish from Uganda we might as well add apples from New Zealand and coals from Newcastle to the list as well.
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