Australia: Chemical treatment of imported seeds could become mandatory and the organic industry is not happy
Apr. 24, 2018
|Vegetables such as cauliflower are among the brassica species subject to proposed mandatory treatments. (ABC)
The Federal Government has released a draft report, proposing compulsory fungicide treatment for seeds in the brassica family, which includes popular vegetables such as cauliflower and broccoli.
In a statement, the Department of Agriculture said the changes are the result of a review into biosecurity risks.
"The draft report identified two fungal pathogens that are of quarantine concern.
"A fungicidal treatment was proposed to manage the risk of introducing these pathogens into Australia and to protect Australia's vegetable industry," it said.
Those in the organic industry are angry that no alternative, non-chemical treatment option was put forward.
Jeff and Frances Michaels run Queensland organic supply business Green Harvest, which imports more than 90 per cent of its seed stock.
"We will not accept exposing our employees, insulting our customers who want to make a clean, green food choice and we won't contribute to further degradation of Australian soils by killing off the predatory beneficial fungi," Mr Michaels said.
"We have 25 employees and most of our business is in the seed department so we'd basically have to restructure our business."
Planting the seed for compromise
The couple has set up an online petition against the reforms, which has attracted 30,000 signatures.
The backlash has prompted the Federal Government to liaise with the organic sector and consider the solutions it has put forward.
"The department will consider alternative equivalent options that do not involve chemical treatment, or that use substances permitted by the National Standard for Organic and Biodynamic Produce," its statement reads.
"These alternative options include, but are not limited to, testing of seed to demonstrate absence of the pathogens of quarantine concern and use of hot water treatment."
The pledge has been welcomed by the organic sector but Tim Marshall, who is a member of the National Organics Standard Committee, says it also wants assurances that research into alternative treatments is undertaken before any changes are made to importation conditions.
"It's really disappointing in this era to see that the first response of any authority is to use a chemical," he said.
"Potential treatments might include the use of ozone treatments, the use of heat treatments and the use of permitted organic chemicals.
"We still need to do some research on this and certainly heat treatments potentially may damage seed."
Farming freedom threatened
The proposed reforms in the draft report have also raised concerns that they favour multinational seed companies.
Adam Collins is a biodynamic grower from the Atherton Tablelands and while he doesn't farm brassica crops, he is concerned that the changes would set a precedent.
"It might be just brassicas now but in time it'll be every seed," he said.
"People are trying to take control, to basically own the rights of farmers and there are a few multinationals who would like to control the whole of the world's seed bank.
"If you control the world's seed bank, you control a lot of power."
Why can't organic seeds be sourced locally?
The issue has highlighted the reliance of the Australian horticultural industry on imported seeds, including both organic and non-organic.
"There is a lot less seed production in Australia than probably most people think there is," Mr Marshall said.
"There is either much cheaper labour costs in the developing world or much larger and more automated businesses in America and Europe and it's very hard to compete in Australia."
The public consultation period for the draft report has closed.
The Department of Agriculture said it will continue to liaise with the organic industry and will recommend a number of options to choose from in its final report.
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