Organic vegetable growers have been up in arms over the proposed measure in the Department’s “Draft review of import conditions for brassicaceous crop seeds for sowing into Australia”, claiming it would greatly reduce organic seed supply, threaten food security and even destroy the livelihood of organic growers.
The proposed additional measures for brassicaceous crop seeds are in addition to Australia’s standard requirements for the importing of seeds for sowing from all sources, and includes the mandatory fungicidal treatment (off-shore or on-shore) for seeds of Brassica oleracea (such as broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, kale and kai-lan), Brassica rapa (such as bok choy, Chinese cabbage, cai xin and turnip), Eruca vesicaria (rocket) and Raphanus sativus (such as radish or wasabi).
Also, seed lots treated off-shore are to be accompanied by an official government Phytosanitary Certificate endorsed with the declaration that the consignment has undergone mandatory treatment in accordance with Australian import conditions.
“Not all brassicaceous crop species reviewed were found to be affected by the identified pathogen pests,” said Dr Marion Healy, First Assistant Secretary of the Biosecurity Plant Division.
“The department proposes that the seeds of species not affected by these pests can continue to be imported under Australia’s standard requirements for the importation of seeds for sowing and will not require the additional mandatory treatment.”
While Australian Organic said it “fully supports the government’s review of biosecurity measures”, it claims the proposals have the potential to cause serious harm.
“The draft proposal specifies mandatory broad spectrum systemic fungicide treatment, without adequate investigation of alternatives that may achieve the same outcome, [which] do not come with the same potential to damage the Australian organic industry.”
Frances Michaels, chief executive of Green Harvest Organic Gardening Supplies — whose online petition to Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources David Littleproud has so far gained more than 18,680 signatures — drew attention to the to the statistic that over 98% of Australia’s vegetable seed is imported, making the country highly vulnerable.
She called for the protection of Australia’s vegetable seed supply from toxic fungicide treatments becoming mandatory, and said an organically acceptable fungicide treatment for seed is needed as an alternative.
Australian Organic pointed out that shipments of the species of seeds proposed for spraying are already subject to government inspection for signs of the presence of pests or diseases — and this system is already working.
“Australian farmers of organic foods do not rely on Band-aid chemical treatments to prevent disease outbreaks — they use proven cultural methods like crop rotation, and biological methods like composting and companion planting, to ensure soil is healthy and balanced.”
It said healthy soil with a diverse ecosystem of beneficial biology is what underpins disease resistance for the long-term.
The agency further highlighted that the Department itself cites academic research that shows: “Physical treatments that have already been used in the past and treatments with bio-pesticides, such as plant extracts, natural compounds and bio-control agents, have proved to be effective in controlling seed-borne pathogens” and further research that shows, "If properly used, hot-water soaks will kill most seed-borne fungi and bacteria without killing the seed.”
“It is difficult to marry this acknowledgement with the proposal for mandatory spraying with conventional chemicals,” said Australian Organic.
Moreover, Australian Organic said it was concerned that the proposal was prepared without organic industry consultation.
The key issue that needs to remain in focus, it added, was the “effect on the whole agriculture and food supply chain to end consumer, including our export markets”.
The agency called the proposal “potentially putting at risk investment in our regions, jobs and growth, due simply to a blunt legal instrument”.
Australian Organic also sought to allay some fears or dispel some misconceptions with some clarifications for the industry and the public. Among them, that the proposal relates to the treatment of some imported seeds only, and there is no proposal for food or soil to be sprayed with fungicide.
Also, if there were to be any risk of seed treatments making their way into organic food products from such a proposal or measure, it would be managed through the organic certification process.
Furthermore, it will not change organic farming methods, organic standards or even organic food availability in Australia, it pledged.