Inappropriate protection

Australia’s official view of the appropriate level of protection against imported plant or animal pests and diseases can be characterised as: “complete protection whatever the cost“. Our trading partners, naturally, find this hard to take; the Philippines raised its objections[⇒ related story] last month. Now the European Union has formally challenged the policy in the WTO. There are some interesting legal issues here but, for Australians, they pale in comparison to the economic question. Some of our rigid quarantine measures almost certainly cost us more than they’re worth.  How much more? We don’t really know! Our government, which goes to extraordinarily picky lengths to assess the physical evidence of risk, never makes a “cost/benefit assessment(summary of Australian Productivity Commission report on cost/benefit assessment of quarantine)”: of its quarantine risk management measures.

‘Complete’ protection means importers may have to wait years, or even decades, for a scientific assessment of an import risk without being able to import in the interim.

“The EU does not dispute Australia’s right to set an appropriate level of protection,” [the EU Commission] said. “The EU does however consider that Australia should not unfairly protect its own market and producers by imposing quarantine rules which block imports without scientific justification, often for many years,” the commission added. The amount of trade lost due to the quarantine measures is difficult to quantify, the commission said. But it noted that EU exports of fresh vegetables to Australia in 2002 were 8,000 tonnes, compared to 35,000 tonnes exported to Canada, a comparable market. “

What sort of risk management policy takes, as its point of departure, a decision that we’ll tolerate near-zero risk whatever the cost? Only an insane one. Postscript: Here’s another example of an insane assumption that risk protection is ‘cost free’: a global ban on low-cost effective insecticides that is killing people in Africa according to “Roger Bate(article on the Stockholm Convention at Techcentralstation)”:

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