Australia imports most of its cut flowers but growers fear international blooms may breach biosecurity


It’s not unusual for brides inspired by celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Megan Markle to spend $150,000 on wedding flowers.

But that yearning for thousands of buds comes at a cost to local flower growers — at least half the flowers sold in Australia come from countries like Kenya, Colombia and Ecuador.

“In the winter months when Australian flowers are very light on, 90 per cent can be imported flowers,” floral designer John Emmanuel Grima said.

He relies heavily on imported blooms, and buys them from Craig Musson, who imports Ecuadorian roses when he’s not breeding, growing and exporting native flowers.

Craig Musson imports Ecuadorian roses to supplement his income, in the months he can’t grow and export native flowers.(ABC: Armin Azad)

Mr Musson said Kenya, Colombia and Ecuador supplied the majority of the world’s roses.

“The number of roses sold in Australia from those three countries may be as high as 90 per cent,” he said.

The international trade, however, has forced smaller growers out of the industry.

“Where we originally had a couple of hundred rose growers, we’re now probably down to about 30 because roses, carnations, chrysanthemums have become the biggest import items into Australia,” New South Wales flower grower Sal Russo said.

A man in an orange vest holds a bouquet of flowers at a market.
New South Wales flower grower Sal Russo and national farm lobby groups fear imported fresh flowers are a biosecurity threat to other agricultural crops.(ABC: Simon Amery)

Waiting for a biosecurity breach

What keeps Mr Russo awake at night is the thought that imported blooms are a ticking biosecurity timebomb.

National farm lobby groups agree.

“To be honest, it’s quite surprising we haven’t had a pest or disease incursion threatening those $27-billion industries already,” said Tyson Cattle from peak body AusVeg and the National Farmer’s Federation’s Horticulture committee.

Data from the Federal Department of Agriculture shows that from September to January, 63 per cent of flowers imported from just one source country arrived carrying foreign pests and diseases.

Between 19 and 41 per cent of imports from three other destinations had similar problems.

Boxes of roses on sale at a market
Imported roses are a popular choice for supermarkets and petrol stations.(ABC Illawarra)

The Department wouldn’t name the individual countries, but industry sources believe the biggest offenders to be Kenya, Colombia, Ecuador and Malaysia.

Acting assistant secretary for agriculture and biosecurity, Peter Creaser, said overall “non-compliance” — where shipments were found to contain pests and diseases — had dropped by 20 per cent, although that recent data was recorded during a period when overall imports fell due to the pandemic.

“We do inspect 100 per cent of all consignments that come into Australia … so when we talk about 25 per cent of non-compliance at the border, it doesn’t mean that those flowers have been released into the environment without any action,” Mr Creaser said.

“They are actually being inspected and then if there are any live pests of concern, we will have those flowers treated here in Australia.”

A bunch of red roses - imported from Kenya.
A bunch of roses imported into Australia from Kenya in time for Valentine’s Day.(Supplied: Kenya Flower Council Facebook)

Exporting countries now have to fumigate flowers before they’re sent to Australia, or be certified by a national plant protection agency.

Anyone wanting to import from Kenya, Colombia or Ecuador needs a special permit.

Mr Russo claims the Federal Government has caved to the lobbying power of cashed-up importers who “think they’re above the law”.

It’s an allegation Mr Musson disputes.

“Australia has the strictest biosecurity regulations bar none, so anybody who’s flouting the laws is going to get caught and prosecuted, as they should,” he said.

Watch this story on ABC TV’s Landline at 12:30pm on Sunday, or on iview.



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