Senate debates

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Bills

Agricultural and Veterinary Chemicals Legislation Amendment (Removing Re-approval and Re-registration) Bill 2014; Second Reading

11:46 am

Photo of Nick XenophonNick Xenophon (SA, Independent) Share this | Hansard source

I cannot support the measures in this bill for the reasons I will outline. Over far too many committee inquiries and estimate sessions, I have heard time and time again that Australia's chemical assessment regime has let us down. I cannot support any proposal that may weaken our system even further. One longstanding example is the issue of the pesticide carbendazim. While it is banned for use in Australia, a minimum residue limit is allowed for imported citrus, including fruit juices.

As growers in South Australia's Riverland, the Riverina in New South Wales and Sunraysia in Victoria have pointed out, if the pesticide is banned in Australia—presumably for health and safety reasons—why are supposedly safe levels of it allowed in imported fruit juice concentrate? If there is a supposed safe level—as there appears to be, according to the APVMA—then why can't growers here use it? I am not suggesting that they should, but there does appear to be a double standard that is doing our citrus growers in the eye in respect of this. I think that is wrong.

There are many, many examples of these inconsistencies, which highlight the gaps in our regulatory system. Most recently, as part of an inquiry into honey bee health in Australia, the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee received evidence from the APVMA regarding the use of neonicotinoid pesticides, or neonics—not to be confused with neocons! There are significant concerns developing overseas about the impact of these types of pesticides on bee health. In particular, the European Commission has suspended their use on flowering crops that are attractive to bees.

This issue of colony collapse disorder is absolutely fundamental, because if we are seeing the collapse of bee colonies because of the use of pesticides, that goes beyond the impact on the honey industry, which is significant in itself. It goes to the issue of pollination. It goes to the issue of something like 75 per cent of our agricultural produce, because of the impact on pollination. These are big issues. The Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee is looking at these issues right now and will be handing down a report shortly. These are fundamental issues about the future of agriculture in this country.

The APVMA first began reviewing the impact of neonics in 2012. A report was finally released in February this year, although it seems the APVMA still has not taken action and wants to conduct further research into insecticides in general before implementing any protection measures. I am not criticising the officers of that authority, but I am concerned that they do not have the resources to be able to do their job properly or with the urgency that is required on occasions. While this thoroughness is to be congratulated, the amount of time it has taken the APVMA to conduct this research—which is still not complete—is simply not good enough.

This goes to the future of agriculture in this country. It goes to fundamental issues about the sustainability of agriculture. I do not want us to be in a situation where the level of colony collapse disorder is so great—and biosecurity is another issue that needs to be considered in the context of this—that because of pesticide use, arguably, as in China's Sichuan province, pear growers are pollinating by using a sharpened bamboo stick with a feather on the end of it in lieu of bees. We need some sharpened bamboo sticks here to metaphorically prod both government and government agencies to deal with this.

In a BBC News Science & Environment report headed 'Widespread impacts of neonicotinoids impossible to deny', Matt McGrath—the environment correspondent for BBC News—says that:

Neonicotinoid pesticides are causing significant damage to a wide range of beneficial species and are a key factor in the decline of bees, say scientists.

Researchers, who have carried out a four-year review of the literature, say the evidence of damage is now "conclusive".

The scientists say the threat to nature is the same as that once posed by the notorious chemical DDT.

That appears to be the scientific consensus. We know it is a serious problem and that it can cause a serious issue with our agricultural production, yet we are still waiting for action on this.

This is particularly true given that no safeguard measures were put in place when these concerns were first raised. Measures including limiting the use of neonics and other pesticides or putting strict spray-drift boundaries in place would have provided a safety net while the review took place and could then have been removed or strengthened as required.

What raises the bigger question in the article published on BBC News yesterday was the report on a new scientific study that had shown the significant impacts of neonics on bee and environmental health. It shows conclusive damage in relation to the use of these pesticides. But how will the APVMA react to this information? How will it be considered or taken into account under the measures proposed in this bill, if there is no requirement for chemicals or pesticides to be reviewed?

Some submitters to the bee inquiry also raised concerns about the independence of the information the APVMA uses to assess chemical risks, which tends to come directly from the manufacturers. I am not saying that the manufacturers of these pesticides are bad people; on the contrary, they have a business to run and they have a role to play. But they also have a vested interest—they want to sell more of this stuff. I am not saying that they are doing so irresponsibly, but I am suggesting that it would be foolish for us to simply rely on the manufacturers. We ought to have some independent, robust assessment. For the APVMA to be pushed into a position of relying so heavily on manufacturers is itself very risky.

I note that the Australian Greens have proposed some amendments in respect of this bill. I will be supporting those amendments, as I believe they at least provide a safety net for some of the more hazardous chemicals assessed by the APVMA. I hope that both the government and the opposition will recognise that, at the very least, we need these safeguards in place. I am looking forward to Senator Siewert's contribution in relation to this. It is your contribution, Senator Siewert?

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