Costly watermelon ban Tonga’s fault

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Crates of returned watermelons from New Zealand

By Kalafi Moala

 

Nuku’alofa Tonga – It is now confirmed that the fruit fly larvae found in a shipment of Tonga watermelons at the Port of Auckland in New Zealand is the result of poor and inadequate fumigation conducted by Tonga Quarantine Services.

Tonga watermelons found with fruil fly larvae at NZ border

Tonga Quarantine is to be blamed for the tragic and careless handling of the fumigation services, and MAFF is wholly responsible for the problem.

Watermelons exported from Tonga to New Zealand must undergo a mandatory fumigation treatment in Tonga to kill insects and fruit fly larvae that may be in the container. Obviously, the treatment did not work as 3 fruit fly larvae survived and were intercepted by New Zealand biosecurity staff at the Port of Auckland.

The New Zealand Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) supported an audit team to investigate the situation in Tonga. The team included the retired head of Tonga’s quarantine services, Sione Foliaki.

A report released last week from the audit team indicated they had investigated the categories and processes the watermelons must go through before clearance for shipment. Even though there were areas identified that needed corrective measures, the major fault found had to do with fumigation.

A reliable source who worked closely on the above issue said, farmers had advised the Ministry of Agriculture months before the shipment of watermelons to be ready, as they knew the large volume required preparation. There is also belief Tonga Quarantine ran out of methyl bromide gas to properly fumigate all the shipment. Obviously, fumigation, for that matter is the last line of defense before fruit is cleared for shipment.

Sione Foliaki, an entomologist, told a New Zealand news service that “the lack of documentation had held back the investigation process.”

What is alleged out of some of the unanswered questions by Tonga quarantine services is that documents may have been filled out inaccurately (or not at all), specifying the duration of fumigation, when it may not have lasted the correct timing.

As a result of this tragic oversight from Tonga, the rejected shipments to New Zealand, is already costing growers $200,000 pa’anga. Jerry Prendergast from United Fresh, representing the New Zealand Produce Industry, told Radio New Zealand the suspension of imports would be devastating to Tongan growers.

And looking at the current season, the value of outstanding imports is estimated to cost $1.6 – $2 million. This is not only tragic for the local economy, but also the mostly rural families that grow watermelons.

“Fumigation is the last line of defense in Tonga before shipment overseas,” says one Tongan official who did not want to be named. “And we messed up big time.”

It is clearly the fault of the Government’s services that the fruit fly larvae survived fumigation and resulted in the banning of shipment of watermelons to New Zealand.

Two major shipments were held up and had to be returned. Nishi Trading, the largest exporter of watermelons, had a shipment of 57.7 tonnes, and a separate shipment of 29 tonnes by the Government as well were re-imported back to Tonga.

The damaging of a livelihood

Watermelons returned from NZ unfit for human consumption

Let’s just call her Mele as she was not too keen on revealing her identity to the public. Mele and her husband are watermelon growers and exporters. They are one of many families that have suffered tremendous loss because of the ban of watermelon shipments to New Zealand.

Most if not all of the growers with rejected exports are trying to find a way to make some money not only out of the shipments that have been re-imported to Tonga, but also out of fruit that have just been harvested but cannot be shipped because of the ban.

“We are here as street vendors trying to sell our watermelons cheaply so we can make some money out of it,” Mele said. And then she went on to tell of a sad story that represents a narrative that can be aired by many of their friends who were growing and exporting watermelons.

“You spend a lot of money to grow the melons, and it’s like an investment, expecting that once the fruit is sold, you not only recover your expenses but also make some profit. This case of our banned shipment to New Zealand is a disaster. We will not be able to make up for our losses.”

“But we are still hopeful to make some money out of the melons we are selling now,” Mele smiled rather optimistically but you can tell the pain in her voice.

Unfortunately, most if not all the melons re-imported to Tonga were damaged and not fit for human consumption. They had to be fed to the pigs.

Watermelons recently harvested and planned for shipments to New Zealand are now sold cheaply at the local markets, for half the prices they normally sell for.

“The market is flooded with watermelons that were supposed to be shipped, and that is why they are being sold cheaply,” another street vendor says.

An opportunity has been temporarily lost for Tonga, as one of the major sources of watermelons for the New Zealand market. The other source is Queensland, Australia, but their export pathway has been severely disrupted due to the discovery of a virus in the fruit thus halting their watermelon export to New Zealand.

And for this summer season in New Zealand, they were looking for Tongan watermelons to make up for the market demand.

A case of cautious optimism

“Our watermelon shipment has arrived, from Auckland after a month since the beginning of its fateful journey,” one of the growers said. “They are mostly damaged now and can’t be eaten. We will pick ourselves up and support all corrective measures and do it all again in 2021!”

This typical Tongan attitude among growers whose livelihood is dependent on the produce of the land, gives room for some optimism in the midst of tragic loss.

Word from the Ministry of Agriculture is that they are trying to resume shipments to New Zealand before the end of the year. But that may be more wishful thinking than reality, as there may be a lot more needed to be done to correct the situation, and to earn the trust of New Zealand Biosecurity Services.

In a program on TV Tonga, Acting CEO of the Ministry of Agriculture, Mana’ia Halafihi said it was important for “related stakeholders working together to address the issue and prevent it from happening again in the future.”

Minoru Nishi of Nishi Trading told Radio New Zealand that “the sector is hoping to be back in business as soon as possible.” He said the ban is hurting a lot of people, but it is an opportunity to work more closely together and put improvements to the system.

“To ensure that these things don’t happen again. But it is having cool heads around the table and people in the right frame of mind, the right passion and commitment,” Minoru Nishi said. “You know, we are serious about this… we see the opportunity growing for us, especially with the suspension of the pathway from Australia (to New Zealand). It’s a perfect time for us here in Tonga to take on that opportunity.”

Agriculture in Tonga contributes 16% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), and along with forestry provides 44% of exports. More than 95% of Tonga’s agriculturally active households engage in subsistence and semi-subsistence agricultural activities, yet only 5% engage in commercial activities.

With the livelihood of so many families affected, the question remains as to what Government will do to help at this time? Most of the growers are just trying to make ends meet. They need more than hope for Christmas. It was not their fault the shipments were stopped. It was not the exporters fault either. If a Government service could be at fault, then it would be the just and natural thing to help the growers with monetary compensation for the incompetence of the Ministry of Agriculture.

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