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Australia aims to improve decision making at farm chemicals regulator

By Peter Hobson

CANBERRA (Reuters) -The Australian government will push the country's farm chemicals regulator to improve the quality and integrity of its decision-making and reduce its focus on approving pesticides at a consistent pace, it said on Wednesday.

A review of the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) last year questioned its corporate culture and standard of oversight, suggesting it may have been too accommodating of industry interests.

However, farm and industry groups say turmoil at the regulator due to the review and government reaction to it has resulted in the APVMA taking too long to approve new products and that this is leading to preventable crop losses worth billions of dollars.

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Agriculture Minister Murray Watt said on Wednesday that under previous governments, the regulator had a disproportionate focus on approving chemicals within statutory time-frames.

"Too much emphasis (was) being placed on quick approvals of pesticides, while reviews of other chemicals to ensure their ongoing safety dragged on for nearly 30 years," he said.

He said the APVMA should take a more balanced approach that would elevate environmental and public health considerations, stakeholder engagement and compliance, adding that what he called long-overdue chemical reviews had been brought forward.

"We want to ensure that we have the world's best chemical regulator, so that consumers and our overseas customers can have confidence in the food and fibre we produce," Watt said.

"At the same time, the APVMA needs to be structured so that it can independently and efficiently approve new, safe chemicals that help farmers do their job."

The agriculture ministry said the APVMA would not be moved back to Canberra, the capital. Its removal to the regional town of Armidale in 2019 caused huge staff turnover that damaged its performance, the review of the regulator found.

The review was sparked by accusations that a senior staff member urinated on colleagues at a staff Christmas party in 2021.

The APVMA's CEO and board chair both resigned last year.

(Reporting by Peter Hobson; Editing by Christian Schmollinger)