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Tiny fruit fly poses threat to agriculture exports

Tiny fruit fly poses threat to agriculture exports article image

A tiny fruit fly is threatening to undermine Australia's $4 billion fruit and vegetable exports, say industry experts.

The insect pest is making it difficult for fruit exporters to send some products into key Asian markets despite recently signed free trade agreements.

Trade agreements with China, Japan and Korea guarantee a significant reduction in tariffs for agriculture produce creating a huge windfall for Australian farmers.

However, many exporters are now finding it difficult to obtaining biosecurity permits (phytosanitary protocol agreements). This means many fruits in particular cannot be sold into markets like China.

"Phytosanitary protocol agreements are the biggest hurdle we have to overcome to get our products into markets like China," said Annie Farrow, Industry services manager at the industry body, Apple and Pear Australia.

Australia's fruit and vegetable exports make up about 10 per cent of the country's $40 billion in agriculture exports and this percentage is expected to grow significantly as Australia transitions its economy away from a slowing mining sector.

But the Queensland fruit fly, known scientifically as Bactrocera tryoni and found across Australia's mainland, has been identified as a major obstacle to future growth.

Damage to ripening fruit

Only a handful of products, including citrus and table grapes, can be sold into China.

Sales of other fruit such as apples, cherries and oranges to markets such as Japan and Korea is heavily restricted because of concerns about the possible transfer of the pest, whose larvae feed on ripening fruit and cause it to rot.

But while mainland farmers have struggled, Tasmania is free from the fruit fly and has sealed a raft of agreements to sell to Asia's largest economies.

Tasmania's fruit and vegetable exports jumped 44 per cent in 2016 to nearly $100 million and are expected to grow rapidly again this year, outpacing national growth of 32 per cent, according to data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Australia's Plant Biosecurity Cooperative Research Centre last year estimated the cost of fruit fly at A$300 million a year in control and lost markets.

"The lack of required phytosanitary agreements are a huge constraint for higher growth," said Phin Ziebell, agribusiness economist with the National Australia Bank.

"These agreements can take many years to obtain," he told Reuters.

Finding a solution

Negotiations are underway with potential buyers to overcome the problem, with talks centring on ways to transport fruit that ensures any flies will be killed but the produce remains fresh.

Some methods include irradiation, which can work for fruits such as cherries, or keeping produce such as apples at near freezing temperatures.

Securing an agreement, however, can be a long-drawn out process and horticulture growers are pessimistic.

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