Potato growers have pledged to fight to delay the conditional approval given to a South Australian company to import fresh whole potatoes into Tasmania.
The details of the conditional approval were unearthed during Question Time on Thursday, after a question from Labor Primary Industry spokesman Shane Broad.
Dr Broad asked for a ‘please explain’ from Minister Guy Barnett.
“I am aware of the decision of Biosecurity Tasmania, made by the Chief Plant Health Manager, based on a risk assessment,” Mr Barnett told Parliament in response to the question.
However, the answer was met with exclamations from members of Parliament, who took issue with how Mr Barnett began his explanation.
Speaker Sue Hickey called Parliament to order part way through Mr Barnett’s answer, as he began to tell the House how vital the potato industry was to Tasmania.
Mr Barnett said, “there was no greater supporter” to Tasmanian agriculture than the Gutwein Liberal Government.
But Mr Broad accused the government of selling out Tasmanian potato producers. He said the decision was made without consultation and would lead to biosecurity and job risks.
Biosecurity Tasmania granted conditional approval for South Australian potato company Mitolo Group.
Dr Broad said the risk of disease could threaten Tasmania’s $400 million potato industry.
IN OTHER NEWS:
“In the wake of blueberry rust and fruit fly outbreaks no one can take this Minister’s biosecurity assurances seriously,” he said.
“Having thrown open the gate to imported potatoes, Guy Barnett wants credit for writing a letter to the two big supermarket chains asking them to support local producers.
“What guarantee does this provide when one of the country’s biggest mainland producers is allowed to dump its cheap potatoes into the Tasmanian market?”
Dr Broad said the approval wasn’t indicative of the government.
ON ITS KNEES
Tasmania’s potato producers have faced a tough past 12 months, after facing unseasonable harvest conditions.
Some farmers had their harvest season delayed due to wet conditions making it impossible to get machines into the paddocks.
Compounding that issue was the coronavirus pandemic, which dried up a large portion of the market when the hospitality industry effectively shut down overnight.
Scottsdale potato farmer Trevor Hall said the decision made by the government couldn’t come at a worse time for the industry.
“The potato industry has been basically on its knees this year, so for the government to threaten it again is unbelievable,” he said.
Mr Hall said the first he knew about the import licence approval was this morning, and he was not involved in any consultation.
He said the issue with granting these import licences was that “it will all go well until suddenly it doesn’t”, and it was unclear still who the imported potatoes will supply to.
One of the significant issues growers fear is the quality control for the product at the end of its life – if potato scraps are planted in gardens to breed potentially devastating pathogens that could spread to Tasmania’s commercial crop.
Mr Hall said the approval licence required more transparency and consultation with growers was crucial.
‘WE WILL FIGHT THIS’
Tasmanian Farmers and Graziers Association vegetable chairman Nathan Richardson said the TFGA had not been consulted on the import licence approval but was present at Thursday’s briefing.
He said there had been zero consultation with industry, and the approval posed several risks to Tasmania’s crucial potato industry.
“This announcement is shocking; there has been zero consultation with the industry,” he said.
Mr Richardson said no potato grower in Tasmania knew about the approval before the briefing and said many were confused about why importing fresh potatoes would benefit Tasmania.
“There is no risk to supply issues for potatoes in Tasmania,” he said.
Mr Richardson said the TFGA was seeking to meet with Biosecurity Tasmania to discuss the import licence approval, to seek to delay it.
“We have requested Biosecurity Tasmania delay approval of the import licence until our import notices have been updated to include more modern diseases and pathogens,” he said.
However, during the briefing on Thursday, Mr Richardson said he didn’t get an assurance from Biosecurity Tasmania that would happen.
He said growers feared the import approval didn’t contain proper protection for the “end-of-life” cycle for the imported potatoes.
“What we could see is potatoes grown in the garden, or in a compost, where diseases could flourish and spread to the commercial crop.”
Also, allowing imported potatoes into the Tasmanian market could jeopardise other Tasmanian potato producers seeking to gain a foothold in export markets.
He said a potato seed producer in Tasmania was seeking to establish a foothold in South East Asia, but this import licence approval had the potential to jeopardise that.
Tasmania is known as a clean, green produce market, that markets itself on being free from a host of diseases that are on the mainland. However, importing potatoes, or anything else for that matter, could lead to an outbreak of a condition not found in the state.
“A few years ago we had a fruit fly outbreak, and a few years before that it was blueberry rust,” he said.
“What happened in those outbreaks is we thought everyone was doing the right thing, but they weren’t, and the Tasmanian industry paid for it.”
STORM IN A TEACUP
Primary Industries Minister Guy Barnett said Dr Broad was “pretending the sky was falling”.
He said the Chief Plant Health Manager had approved a conditional exemption to import potatoes to a South Australian company in June.
“This decision was made due to SA being free of two specific diseases that are the subject of current import requirements, and is consistent with agreed terms of biosecurity risk management and trade,” Mr Barnett said.
“Tasmanian high-quality potatoes are readily available and highly sought after. I encourage Tasmanians to continue to buy locally grown potatoes from our supermarkets, fruit and vegetable grocers, markets and stores right across Tasmania.