Bargaining chips.

Bargaining chips. Photo: Marina Oliphant

Australian potato farmers fear their crops could be devastated by Zebra Chip disease if a 24-year ban on New Zealand potato imports is lifted.

Biosecurity Australia has proposed lifting the import ban under strict quarantine rules in response to a six-year campaign by New Zealand to allow its potatoes be processed into chips here.

The import of fresh potatoes for human consumption and for processing is currently prohibited from all countries and there have been no imports from New Zealand since 1988.

Zebra Chip affects the starch and sugar levels in the potato affecting taste and appearance, making it unfit for sale.

Australia's $614 million potato industry is currently free of the disease.

Last August, Australia lifted a 90-year ban on New Zealand apple imports, stoking similar fears from the domestic apple and pear industry about the risk of disease including Fire Blight. By October nearly a quarter of New Zealand apple imports had been rejected.

AUSVEG, the peak industry body of vegetable farmers, says allowing New Zealand potatoes could lead to yield losses of up to 50 per cent if Zebra Chip hit Australian crops.

The group's chief executive Richard Mulcahy has questioned the quality and advice of the scientific advice that formed the basis of the draft decision.

Mr Mulcahy said:  "Placing the livelihood of these 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."

He said the disease dramatically affected the health of potato plants and in the year of 2008/09, causing losses of over $60 million to New Zealand's potato industry.

"AUSVEG is calling for these proposed measures to be scrapped and for the importation of potentially diseased potatoes to remain suspended, especially as the Zebra Chip disease complex is not fully understood by the scientific community," he said.

The Department of Agriculture and Minister Joe Ludwig's office both said a decision had not been made yet, with a 60-day consultation currently underway.

The department said the Zebra Chip was carrried by a bug, a psyllid, on the foliage, not the actual potato, which would be the only element imported.

It said potatoes would be inspected in New Zealand before departure, in Australia upon arrival and would remain quarantined en route to the processing plant. The processor would have dispose of the waste in a certain manner.

Mr Ludwig said Australia’s biosecurity system was world-class because decision making was based on the best available science.

“Any information that AUSVEG, or any member of the community, has to support tougher conditions of import than those proposed by the draft policy review should provide it to the department so that it can be properly considered in finalising the review,’’ Senator Ludwig said.