Isolated from the rest of the world, New Zealand and Australia are critically at risk from alien invaders of the most threatening kind: biological pests from overseas that prey on the countries’ indigenous and vulnerable agricultural produce.
From feral pigs and rabbits in Australia to rock snot and the Queensland fruit fly across the Tasman, these countries know the damage that can be done by imported biosecurity threats. So why do they not crack down harder on the smaller invaders by irradiating more produce at its point of arrival? Currently, in Australia and New Zealand, only herbs and spices, herbal infusions, tomatoes, capsicums and some tropical fruits can be irradiated.
Safe and effective
Irradiation is endorsed by the World Health Organisation, Food and Agriculture Organisation, American Medical Association and European Union. It is also supported by FSANZ, the food standards regulator for Australia and New Zealand, which has studied the process of food irradiation and found it safe and effective. FSANZ has established that there is a technological need to irradiate these foods, and that there are no safety concerns or significant loss of nutrients when doing so.
Australia’s peak body for the vegetable and potato industry similarly agrees. “AusVeg supports any options which increase market access for Australian growers in a fashion that is safe for consumers and maintain the integrity of treated produce, and irradiation is one such treatment,” a spokesman told us, adding that the latter should “definitely" be considered as a treatment for suitable produce.
Irradiation, which has been used to treat food since the late 1950s, provides processors with an alternative to chemical and heat treatments. It is used in more than 50 countries to destroy bacteria and pests and to extend the shelf life of food.
The recent discovery of a Queensland fruit fly—also known as the Q’fly—in the New Zealand North Island town of Whangarei, will hopefully prompt more people in the country to have a tough conversation about irradiating more lines of produce.
The Q’fly is considered to be Australia’s most serious insect pest of fruit and vegetable crops. It infests more than 100 species of produce, with hosts including commercial crops such as avocado, citrus, feijoa, grape, capsicum, persimmon, pipfruit and stonefruit.
Some of these crop imports are irradiated on arrival in New Zealand, but the fact that the pest has entered the country’s airspace suggests Kiwi safeguards are distinctly limited.
“If this fly were to establish here, it would have serious consequences for New Zealand’s horticultural industry,” the country’s Ministry for Primary Industries has warned.
Although the ministry has gone on record to say that nuclear radiation is effective in killing the Q’fly and other similar unwanted organisms, and makes food much safer to eat, strong lobbying by the Green Party and others has been successful in limiting irradiation in Australia and New Zealand.
These lobbies are causing unnecessary risk both to Australia and New Zealand’s agriculture industries and consumers there. For example, campylobacter infections have been kept at bay by irradiation in many other countries, while they remain the most common bacterial cause of foodborne illness in Australia and New Zealand.
Scientific evidence confirms that low levels of radiation are not harmful to humans, even after catastrophic events like the one that took place at Fukushima in Japan. The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) has said no-one has either died or is likely to do so from radiation at the crippled nuclear reactor.
While the comparison is extreme, the fact that this UN analysis will come as a surprise to most people hints at the fear with which the word “irradiation” is met by consumers.
According to AusVeg, which conducted market research on 900 Australians to gauge public opinion on produce treatments, the concept doesn’t need to be so scary if consumers know more about it.
“[We] found that approval levels for irradiation were higher in consumers, once they had been educated about post-harvest treatments, than for some other traditionally used methods,” its spokesman said. “The research highlighted that, with education, consumers would be likely to accept that irradiation is safe.”
Types of radiation are used commonly and safely to treat cancer an to take X-rays. People living in naturally radioactive parts of the world, where people live and work amid Chernobyl-like levels of radiation, still remain normally healthy.
Because of public fears, ministers and regulators need to look at irradiation’s connotations and calm concerns. At the same time, they should consider opening up the practice more widely for the benefit of agriculture and consumers in Australia and New Zealand.
After all, these countries might be isolated geographically, but pests of all nationalities will find a home there if and when they are granted entry.