ALLOWING the import of potatoes from New Zealand would be an "obscene" decision that would put the Australian industry at extreme risk, a leading Portland district grower says.
Peter Lyons, president of Seed Potatoes Victoria and producer of more than 2000 tonnes of seed potatoes annually, said it was incredible that the government was even considering allowing importation from a source known to harbour the Zebra Chip disease.
The federal Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF) has released a draft proposal to open the door to fresh potatoes from New Zealand.
The review is in response to a request from the New Zealand government.
The Zebra Chip disease blackens the tubers, rendering them unsuitable for processing and can cause crop losses of 50 per cent.
The disease, which also affects tomatoes and capsicums, is spread by an insect called the Tomato-Potato Psyllid and also through live plant material, including fresh potatoes.
Mr Lyons said the risk of the disease being introduced by the insect was minimal and there was little that could be done to mitigate this risk.
"But the risk of introducing it in fresh potatoes is extreme. This proposal is like holding a gun to the head of our industry.
"If the disease got in here I would close my business."
Mr Lyons said Australia's biosecurity measures had so far kept the country free of many of the diseases that affect potatoes in most other places.
"Why would the government even consider this proposal? We've got a great deal to lose and nothing to gain."
AUSVEG, the national peak industry body representing Australia's 9000 vegetable and potato growers, said the quality and scientific validity of the federal government's advice on the proposal contained some claims that were not scientifically based.
"Placing the livelihood of Australian potato growers and their families in danger based on import conditions constructed from poorly researched, non-scientific information is simply far too great a risk to take," said AUSVEG chief executive officer Richard Mulcahy.
Potatoes represent one of Australia's largest horticulture crops, with over 2000 growing operations.
It is worth more than $600 million annually.
DAFF Biosecurity said the proposal includes a combination of risk management measures and operational systems that will reduce the risk.
But Mr Mulcahy said the draft import conditions report was largely based on a Pest Risk Analysis written in 2009.
"This Pest Risk Analysis is severely out of date considering the significant advances made in the last three years of the understanding of this disease and its devastating potential."
Mr Mulcahy said the report also failed to consider all the potential pathways for the disease finding its way into Australia.
"This is a serious oversight if DAFF Biosecurity is genuinely concerned about protecting our nation from exotic pests and diseases."
Zebra Chip disease was fi rst detected in New Zealand 2008 and in 2008/09 caused losses of more than $60 million to its potato industry.
The disease alters the sugar levels in the potato. The sugar caramelises and turns brown when the potato is cooked, giving it an unpleasant taste and burnt appearance.
While not harmful, it makes the potatoes commercially worthless.
The draft review is open for submissions until September 3.