A statement released yesterday (17 October) by the Australian Apple and Pear Growers Association (AAPGA) accused the government of allowing political expediency to override the welfare of the nation's agriculture industry. Last week's official approval of the resumption of New Zealand apple imports has provoked much criticism amongst Australian growers in the Goulburn valley, where 90% of the nation's pears and much of its apples are grown, and where there is the most to lose from a potential outbreak of fire blight disease.

The federal government maintains that the imports present "minimal risk" to the domestic industry in terms of disease, but orchardist Tim Nethersole explained: "We in the Goulburn Valley feel we are probably most at risk because of our climate. Obviously we are very disappointed with the decision. Even minimal risk is not acceptable because potentially it could wipe out the pear industry and have a substantial impact on the apple industry as well."

John Corboy, chairman of the AAPGA's fire blight task force, agreed that an outbreak could cost the local pear and apple industries anything up to A$1bn, and he blamed the government's policy of free trade for taking importance over the welfare of the nation's agriculture. Nethersole agreed, "it's our livelihood at stake," and another grower, Andrew McNabb, said he received the news with "disbelief and disgust that our government is ready to sell us out of business."

Few growers have faith in the protocols established by Biosecurity Australia to eliminate the disease. They believe that the most glaring inadequacy is the measure that allows imports of uninfected fruit as long as it was grown at least 50 metres from any infected orchard. This, said Nethersole, is a "joke. Fire blight is a very virulent disease that is spread by birds, wind, bees and insects, so do you really think that 50 metres is adequate?"

McNabb stated that the only responsible decision by the government would have been to continue the ban on New Zealand apples. Without it, he says, Australian growers are just waiting to be infected: "It will only be a matter of time."