Fruit pest thy name is Joyce

Brett DelSimone, CommentCountryman

Federal Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce's first achievement in Government is likely to be the collapse of the Australian peach and apricot industries after the decision to ban the pesticide fenthion.

The Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority, which comes under Mr Joyce's portfolio, last week put an immediate ban on spraying fenthion - sold under the brand name Lebaycid - on peaches and apricots.

Fenthion is the only pesticide proved by in-field testing to kill fruit fly in all stages of the lifecycle. Other products kill adult fruit fly but don't stop eggs developing into larvae and destroying fruit.

The ban comes three weeks before Perth Hills orchardists start picking and will lead to devastating crop losses from Mediterranean fruit fly. Our growers predict they will lose 50 to 100 per cent of their peaches and apricots without fenthion.

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The APVMA last year proposed to ban fenthion on all fruit with edible skin but campaigning by the Hills Orchard Improvement Group stayed the decision so further research could be conducted.

Research by the industry proved the APVMA wrong and it has now issued a permit for continued use of fenthion on nectarines, plums, cherries, apples, pears, persimmons and citrus fruit.

Results from Hills growers showed fenthion can also be used without exceeding residue levels set by the regulator on peaches and apricots but that research has been ignored.

A ban on fenthion for apricots and peaches, which are considered to be in a different category because of their furry skin, will have catastrophic effects on fresh fruit production in fruit-fly affected areas.

Our orchards are patchworks, with rows of peaches mixed with nectarines, plums, apples and pears. Allowing fruit fly to run rampant in peaches and apricots will damage entire orchards because fruit fly will breed and attack the other fruit.

Unless orchardists make the heartbreaking decision to pull out their peach and apricot trees in the next three weeks, they face substantial losses from fruit fly strike in other varieties as well. This is a devastating blow to an industry that produces $40 million of fresh fruit for Perth markets each year.

Hills orchardists have no confidence in the APVMA decision for a simple reason - just like last year the science is flawed. Discussing the findings in a teleconference last week, the APVMA's manager of pesticide residue, Jason Lutze, told growers: "Fenthion is a contact pesticide - there is very little systemic activity."

In fact, the opposite is true - fenthion is a systemic and contact insecticide that breaks down rapidly once the fruit is picked. The proof is provided by the results of FreshTest, the quality-testing program managed by the Australian Chamber of Fruit and Vegetable Industries.

Every sample of fruit from Australian markets submitted to FreshTest is tested for fenthion. Over the past decade, tens of thousands of samples of fruit and vegetables have been tested and 98 per cent contained no trace.

Growers question the validity of the decision to ban fenthion when the regulator doesn't understand how the chemical works or acts in the orchard.

On behalf of growers, Dr Mark Imisides PhD Chem, known to readers of _The West Australian _and 6PR listeners as Dr Chemical, assessed the APVMA report and concluded the reasons for the ban did not withstand scientific scrutiny.

In contrast to the APVMA conclusion that using fenthion on peaches is "likely" to pose a dietary risk, Dr Imisides says there is 60 years of data to the effect that the product is safe.

The regulator bears no responsibility for the impact of such decisions - even when they're wrong. Asked by growers how they should manage the season when the ban came down at the eleventh hour, Dr Lutze said "as the regulator it is not our responsibility to find options for growers".

Growers believe these are examples of the flawed science and failure of due process in the APVMA review of fenthion.

In August, then shadow agriculture minister John Cobb met Hills growers and said a ban was a serious overreaction and committed a coalition government to do all in its power to keep fenthion available for orchardists. That promise has not been delivered.

Hills and Eastern States growers will pursue all avenues to have this flawed decision overturned. Otherwise Australians will be eating fruit from countries with chemical spray regimes far less regulated than ours.

Before winning Government, Mr Joyce said a lot about protecting Australian agriculture. Let's hope he likes eating imported fruit because consumers will have a hard time finding Australian-grown peaches and apricots on shelves this summer.

Brett DelSimone is a Roleystone orchardist and member of the Hills Orchard Improvement Group

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