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There is little evidence that harmonising Australia's more stringent food standards with America's
less stringent ones would be of benefit, economically or socially.
Safe Australian food
vs global free trade
By ROBBIE DAVIS, CEO, POTATOES SA
AUSTRALIA has maintained a relatively
extreme position on national quar-
antine issues, considerably aided by
As a result, it is comparatively free of the
many exotic pests and diseases that can be
spread by international agricultural trade.
It has been spared many of the additional
costs on-farm due to changes to food safety
regulations in the value chain.
Stringent food safety standards are often
seen as market protectionism or barriers to
trade, rather than important protection meas-
ures for both industry and consumers.
However, within the current round of trade
negotiations it is likely that the United States
will continue to put pressure on Australia to
dilute its regulations.
While Australia's current regulations may
not be perfect, it is important that any discus-
sions about reforming them are conducted
with the health and safety of Australians
and Australian agribusiness as a priority, not
unduly influenced by trade concerns.
Australia's 'clean and green'
More than 70 per cent of Australian agricul-
tural income is from exports.
Consequently, our exports must meet
importing countries' prescribed protocols
regarding freedom from pests and diseases and
must exhibit chemical residue status within
agreed international limits.
Australia has an excellent international
reputation for clean and green production
due to its isolation and low-input, low-output
This has allowed the country's process for
regulating chemical use in agricultural and
veterinary products to differ from many other
In many cases, this has raised on-farm
chemical costs and allowed fewer choices for
the management of pests and diseases.
However, in some industries this combina-
tion of costs and choices has slowed the rate
at which pests develop resistance to chemicals,
and as a result total production costs are lower
than those of international competitors.
This has also enabled meeting international
safety standards, and maintained the pris-
tine reputation of product traceable to the
Australian agricultural and horticultural
product is seldom internationally price-com-
petitive but it commands a premium because
of the country's clean and green image, its
adherence to high food safety and its consist-
ency of quality supply.
For example, in 2004 and 2005 Australia
dominated the lucrative Japanese market for
beef and veal when Japan halted US imports in
response to the outbreak of Bovine spongiform
encephalopathy (mad cow disease).
But Australia's more stringent regulations
have long been in the sights of our trading
partners, who would prefer that our high
standards be "harmonised" with their less
stringent ones, to "facilitate trade".
Australia is now embarking on increased
economic integration with the US thorough
the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations,
and the question of its stringent food safety
standards will no doubt be a key topic of
Bringing chemical and food standards into
line with the US is clearly in America's interest.
But there is little evidence that harmonis-
ing Australia's more stringent standards with
America's less stringent ones would be of
benefit, either economically or socially.
This coincides with Australia's efforts to
reduce red tape, subsidise access to farming
and veterinary chemicals, and review its food
High regulatory standards can be expensive
but the economic and social costs of opening
the trade door to new and unknown food
safety risks through pest and disease incursion
are likely to be much higher.
• Note: this article contains information from the
2014 workshop "Ten Years since the Australia-US
Free Trade Agreement: Where to for Australia's
Trade Policy?", sponsored by the Academy of the
Social Sciences in Australia and Faculty of Arts and
Social Sciences, UNSW, Australia.
• Details: Robbie Davis 0427 084 319 or
The economic and social costs
of opening the trade door to
unknown food safety risks can be
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