Apple war truce?

The mixture of enthusiasm and caution from apple growers at news of a draft interim World Trade Organisation (WTO) ruling on New Zealand access to the Australian market is understandable. For 89 years this country's apples have been excluded, and successive attempts to gain access have been rebuffed.

When grudgingly, entry was allowed, the conditions, like orchard inspections and chlorine baths for export fruit, were impossible. They doubled the cost of producing apples and made sending them to Australia hopelessly uneconomic.

Finally and belatedly, in 2007, the Clark government felt it necessary to take its neighbour and friend to the WTO.

As expected, progress has been slow and, as expected, the WTO is finding in New Zealand's favour, especially because the United States won a similar long drawn-out apple case against Japan.

The WTO has again studied mountains of detailed scientific evidence and has confirmed the risk of fireblight being spread through mature apples is negligible.

The fact that the final decision is still months away and Australia can still appeal on matters of law is one ground for grower caution. Growers know the strength and vehemence of the apple lobby which fears New Zealand will undercut Australian producers on price and quality.

The spectre of Chinese exports also looms.

China, it is said, is the world's largest apple producer and already has sizeable slices of both the New Zealand and Australian markets in horticultural goods.

Chinese garlic, for example, is usually far cheaper and far slicker in its presentation than the local equivalents.

If Australia lets New Zealand in then others are likely to follow, including China.

Chile, too, is lining up the Australian market.

The Australian apple market is not huge and estimates for New Zealand exports range around $15 million to $20 million per annum, small but significant.

On the other hand Australian apple consumption is much lower than New Zealand's and better prices and more competition could be what is needed to stimulate demand.

Issues like apple importation run on emotion, leaving the science and the facts ignored, twisted or rejected.

One Australian MP said last week of imported New Zealand apples, "you'll have outbreaks [of fireblight] all over the place".

Australian growers, similarly, magnify any hint of a risk and claim the science is on their side. Unfortunately, the reputation of the objectivity of scientists has been besmirched, sometimes justifiably, in recent times.

This gives weight to those who treat with scepticism the claims of a negligible chance of spreading fireblight via mature apples.

The growers pressure the Government and Biosecurity Australia and, soon, in high dudgeon, they convince many Australians of both the plight and right of their position.

Imagine the matter in reverse.

New Zealand growers would also battle hard to protect their patch and their livelihoods, with biosecurity risks likely to be stressed.

As everyone knows, such arguments are potent because introduced pests can so easily devastate industries - just ask apiarists what the Varroa mite has done to honey production.

Australia is in this instance, however, a blatant hypocrite.

It battles for free trade in agriculture while putting up several specific agricultural barriers to protect its own, including against New Zealand apples.

This is all the more galling because of Australian domination of so much of New Zealand commerce.

Its big retailers devastate small New Zealand merchants and its banks just about monopolise banking services.

The two governments have until the end of this month to comment on the draft decision before a final ruling is made.

Hopefully, the ammunition supplied by that decision will enable comparatively rapid progress on opening up the Australian market.

The New Zealand Government, while recognising the delicacy of forcing the issue before the looming Australian elections, should prompt Australia to move later this year and stop stonewalling.

Indications are the time is coming when New Zealand growers can gain access to a sizeable new market on our doorstep.