APVMA under review after report highlights ‘serious’ problems

Grain Central, July 17, 2023

THE Federal Government on Friday announced it was undertaking a “rapid evaluation” of the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority’s structure and governance, with findings to be delivered by September 30.

To be conducted by eminent former public servant Ken Matthews, it follows Friday’s release of a Clayton Utz report detailing serious allegations concerning Australia’s regulator of agricultural and veterinary chemicals up to the point of sale.

Both the APVMA chief executive officer and board chair have tendered their resignations in recent days.

Minister for Agriculture Murray Watt said the independent review found serious and systemic issues with the regulator’s operations, conduct and governance.

“At my request, the APVMA Board commissioned an independent review into the operations of the APVMA,” Mr Watt said.

“The matters identified by the review are very serious and point to systemic problems with the administration and governance of the APVMA.

“Concerningly, the review found serious allegations of chemical industry capture of the APVMA, which appears to have played a key role in the organisation not performing its full regulatory responsibilities.

“The report also found that former Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce’s decision to move the regulator to Armidale resulted in a loss of corporate knowledge, a loss of corporate culture and a loss of experience and knowledge of public sector values.”

The Clayton Utz review found material it had reviewed “does not indicate any instances where agvet chemical products have been registered inappropriately”.

However, it found the APVMA had “prioritised regulatory performance in relation to registrations, assessments and approvals over regulatory performance in relation to monitoring, compliance and enforcement”.

In addition, the review found the APVMVA was reluctant to pursue prosecutions and other enforcement measures for serious breaches, stating that the agency had “a clear preference for enforcement by way of education and engagement over infringement notices, enforceable undertakings, civil proceedings and prosecutions”.

“This has resulted in the review of a number of chemicals that are already on the market taking far longer than statutory timeframes.”

“I have therefore issued the APVMA with a ministerial direction for finalising – as soon as possible – reviews of eight chemicals, which have each been ongoing for more than 17 years.

“This action has never been taken by an Australian Agriculture Minister before.”

Criticism from CropLife

In a statement released on June 29, CropLife Australia said the significant decline in the APVMA performance in December 2022 and March 2023 quarter, compared to the corresponding periods in previous years, was both concerning and disappointing.

CropLife Australia is the peak body for Australian crop-protection products, and said data showed APVMA timeframe performance for major pesticide applications sits at 86.4 percent for the March quarter, following a “dismal” 82.8pc reported for the previous quarter.

It said this decline in performance has occurred off a 5pc decline in actual number of applications but represents more than a 16pc decline in real, on-time performance over comparable six-month periods.

“Major pesticide application timeframes are a key metric for Australian farmers to obtain access to the latest modern and innovative crop protection and pest defence products,” CropLife Australia CEO Matthew Cossey  said.

“This is vitally important for the productivity, sustainability, and profitability of Australian farming,” said.

Mr Cossey said APVMA had made great strides in the years leading up to 2022, returning to a historically strong performance, reducing accumulated backlogs and improving assessment timeframes following the “disastrous performance in 2017”.

“Effective management, professional regulatory scientists and dedicated specialised staff at the APVMA had restored and maintained performance at or near 99pc processing within statutory timeframes since the September 2020 quarter.

“That is why this recent significant drop in performance is so concerning and a matter that the APVMA Board and interim management need to explain and address as a matter of urgency to maintain its standing as a world leading independent, technically proficient, and efficient regulator.”

Mr Cossey said the current APVMA Board was established in May 2022 by the Federal Government to supposedly improve governance, efficiency, and the strategic operations of the regulator.

This was despite industry and other key stakeholders raising concerns about the nature, structure and cost of the initiative.

“The costs of this board are set to be borne by industry and the Australian farming sector from next year, while simultaneously paying for the significant opportunity costs of delayed access to innovative plant science solutions which this most recent performance data highlights.

“The grains industry estimated that the disastrous performance of the regulator in 2017 cost Australian farmers in excess of $500 million in lost productivity due to delayed access to the vital and innovative crop protection products available to their international competitors.

Mr Cossey said CropLife Australia and its members remain committed to working with the APVMA and government to implement efficiency measures that improve the performance and maintain the integrity and community confidence in the system and deliver better outcomes for Australian growers.

GPA weighs in

In a statement released today, Victorian grower and Grain Producers Australia RD&E spokesperson Andrew Weidemann said GPA welcomed the Federal Government’s commitment to ensure the integrity of Australia’s agriculture and veterinary chemicals regulation system.

“Producers will and do inevitably wear the costs of any inefficiencies; either through cost-shifting or the opportunity cost of vitally important products not being approved for on-farm use,” Mr Weidemann said.

“That’s why GPA supports an independent regulator with a science-based and evidence-based approach to conducting product approvals and assessments in an efficient manner.”

He said within this reform process, the Federal Government can also consider a deeper underlying issue for the APVMA, outside of its location and accusations of pork barrelling.

That issue is that it “serves two masters”, but only one provides a source of funding.

“If the APVMA’s performance is measured against the need to ensure public health and environmental safety outcomes, as well as deliver commercial products to ensure farmers produce food that’s safe, sustainable and affordable, then a more equitable funding balance/source should also be considered,” Mr Weidemann said.

Source: Federal Government, CropLife Australia, GPA


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