Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Why phylloxera matters to me

South Australia is home to some of the oldest vines in the world. Uniquely these are planted on their own roots. Our state has a proud history of bio-security. I am worried that is about to change.

South Australia is in the process of changing the phylloxera regulations contained in the S.A. Plant Quarantine Standard to align with the National Phylloxera Management Protocol. Full adoption of the National Phylloxera Management Protocol may increase the risk to South Australia* from phylloxera. In parallel with the national protocol, new areas of Victorian vineyard have been surveyed to allow transport of grapes and vine material into South Australia, something which historically hasn't occurred since the Phylloxera Board was established.

Why the need for change?
Phylloxera has moved further in the last 10 years than it has in the last 100 years.
The phylloxera, a true gourmet, finds out the best vineyards and attaches itself to the best wines -
Cartoon from the Punch, Sept. 1890.
Phylloxera is the world's worst grapevine pest. It only takes one crawler to start an infection. This insect attacks grapevine roots, slowly causing a decline in vine health and ultimately killing the vine. Wineries also suffer as a whole raft of logistical expenses - bin cleaning, staff dedicated to paperwork, heat sheds - has to be borne.

Worse than the death of vineyards and the interruption to winemaking, phylloxera has a human toll. It causes financial chaos and ruins grape and wine businesses wherever it goes. Very few businesses are making a profit enough to absorb the cost of change in a future phylloxera infested South Australia. No one would argue that an infestation would be disastrous.

“We applaud Victoria’s efforts to survey its wine regions for phylloxera but we cannot accept the claims that these new interstate areas are phylloxera free ... As noted Phylloxera is a tricky problem that can take several years to be detected ... The surveys provide a guide only and are not a guarantee. Opening our border to free trade with these regions is not worth the risk with South Australia’s old vines.” Glen Harminson, Angaston
Chaos. Cost. Heartbreak. Loss. Dying vines.
If phylloxera was found in McLaren Vale tomorrow, it is likely, because there are no natural barriers like rivers, that the entire region would be declared a Phylloxera Infested Zone (PIZ). This declaration locks the region up and stops the transport of harvested grapes between McLaren Vale and other regions.

Imagine vintage without the ability to send fresh harvested grapes to the Barossa Valley? Would it affect your grape contract? Worse still imagine if the Barossa Valley, Langhorne Creek or the Riverland was locked down? The wider wine industry would lose those regions processing capacity as they would be filled with local grapes that couldn't be processed ex-region. With no truck or bin transport without heat sterilization, how will transport businesses cope? Where are the heat shed to clean the trucks?

It is a nightmare scenario and one that I don't want to be a part of. My belief is to keep our 'old' S.A. Plant Quarantine Standard and if anything strengthen it up.
I have been asking tough questions of the Phylloxera Board.
Why should South Australia adopt the National Phylloxera Protocol? For over 100 years we have had a unique laws and protections. Can we have a higher standard than the National Protocol?  

How much risk is enough? It should be recognized that South Australian growers already accept a reasonable level of risk. For example machinery (including harvesters) from interstate are allowed entry after cleaning (and dis-infestation if coming from a Phylloxera Risk Zone or Infested Zone). Grape must & juice is allowed entry. Why should we take any more risk?

What responsibility will the Phylloxera Board or the South Australian Government accept in assisting affected growers if there is a phylloxera outbreak? It would be a disaster if this occurred due to these protocol changes. Grapes from new interstate Phylloxera Exclusion Zones like Bendigo/Heathcote, Geelong and the Pyrenees in central Victoria will be allowed entry into S.A. and this is a big new risk if these regions are not 100% phylloxera free.

Can we have confidence in the surveying of these regions? How good are the methods of detecting phylloxera? Page 16 of the Yarra Valley Case Study (on Phylloxera Board website) reports that surveys there appeared to have missed phylloxera in four instances. Can the Phylloxera Board provide confidence levels on the current National Protocol Survey for declaring areas pest free?

Are you confident that all of the phylloxera protocols are being practiced interstate? Is there any surveying maintenance regime in place for new Phylloxera Exclusion Zones (PEZs), to ensure the pest hasn’t crept in? Is there any surveying maintenance regime in place for the Phylloxera Infested Zones (PIZs), to ensure that the nearest phylloxera infestation remains at least 5km from the PIZ boundary?
Why change?  
There are too many questions and what if’s for me to be satisfied that harmonising S.A.'s regulations with the National Phylloxera Protocol have benefits that out weight the risks. I can't be comfortable because the National Protocol allows free, or less restricted movement of phylloxera risk vectors (grapes, grapevine cuttings/rootlings, machinery & personnel) from interstate than is currently, or was historically, allowed. It is debatable if this potential increase in risk is significant, or only slight, but any risk is not worth it.

South Australia (Sunraysia and Mildura) have kept phylloxera out for over one hundred years. Let's not let that falter.

*South Australia, Mildura and Sunraysia historically have no phylloxera prior to establishment of PEZ regions.