THE state government has hoisted the white flag in the war against fruit fly, scrapping funding to fight the pest and plunging the local citrus industry into turmoil.
In the most dramatic development since the fruit fly exclusion zone (FFEZ) was established in 1996, the Department of Primary Industries (DPI) announced plans on Friday to walk away from the program, leaving farmers and residents solely responsible for keeping the pest out.
The announcement is seen as a mixed blessing for citrus growers, cutting red tape and opening access to the lucrative Melbourne market but jeoparding exports to the important US market.
Fruit fly numbers, already endemic in the region, are expected to explode on the back of the decision.
Local citrus leaders have urged the industry, still fractured after the collapse of Riverina Citrus, to unite and commit to fighting the pest.
"We are obviously very disappointed with the decision,"
Griffith and District Citrus Growers vice-president John Sergi said.
"But the fight is not over yet ... but the best way for growers to ensure that we don't lose a market like the US is to get the fruit fly numbers down. It's all up to growers now.
"Growers haven't always done the right thing in the past by bait spraying but we need to show the government we can do it and force them to reinstate the program."
The cutbacks are expected to save the state government about $2 million a year.
DPI's director of plant biosecurity Satendra Kumar said keeping the region fruit fly-free had become an "impossible battle".
"It just hasn't been technically and financially feasible to keep the area free," Mr Kumar said.
"It's been seen as a government problem for a long time but we have decided to put the responsibility back into the hands of industry.
"We can't go out and eliminate every fruit fly, it's just not working.
"Victoria, Queensland and greater NSW are all endemic to fruit fly and there are a lot of positives to having the fruit fly exclusion zone dropped.
"The Riverina has been in outbreak for two years and growers have still been supplying markets by cold treating fruit.
"Instead of fighting a losing battle, let's change tack."
He said while the move to scrap funding was only a proposal, it was almost certain to proceed "unless someone can come up with a magic bullet solution".
The potential loss of the US market, which dictates fruit only come from a fruit fly exclusion zone, is seen as a particularly bitter blow for growers.
The Riverina Biosecurity Committee (RBC) was formed in April to bring together a host of local horticulture industries and provide a co-ordinated approach to the fruit fly fight.
RBC chairman Peter Davidson said the funding announcement had "wide ramifications" for the local horticulture sector.
"There will be an extra cost burden and it will only work if all growers are serious about doing something," he said.
"It's going to be an uphill battle but we've got to give it our best shot."