California Growers Sue USA for Lifting Ban on Argentine Lemons

SACRAMENTO (CN) — Suing the United States, a consortium of citrus growers claims the secretary of agriculture’s recent decision to remove the ban on lemon imports from Argentina was politically motivated, ignores science and puts the nation’s produce at risk.

The U.S. Citrus Science Council and five large growers the Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and Kevin Shea, administrator of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, on Wednesday in Federal Court.

The growers say the ban was lifted “in a rush to reverse decades-old policy in the service of unrelated foreign objectives,” and that APHIS and the USDA violated a number of laws to do it.

The United States has banned importation of lemons from Argentina since 1947 to prevent the spread of blight and disease. Many plant pests and diseases in Argentina would wreak havoc here, and the Argentine agency charged with monitoring the problem, the Servicio Nacional de Sanidad y Calidad Agroalimentari, has a long history of failing to report disease outbreaks and ensuring compliance with measures to prevent their spread, the growers say, citing the USDA itself.

The 54-page complaint cites the emergence of citrus black spot, a fungal disease that is hammering the Florida citrus industry. In lifting the ban, APHIS cited conclusions reached after a 2015 visit to Argentina, but APHIS has never disclosed any information about that trip, failed to issue a report on it, did not take public comment on it and has refused to respond to Freedom of Information Act requests seeking information about the trip, according to the complaint.

“The rule is claimed to be grounded on information gained from an Argentine site visit said to have taken place in 2015,” California Citrus Mutual President Joel Nelsen said in a statement. However, he added, “Despite repeated requests and the filing of a Freedom of Information Act request, we have never been allowed to review a trip report for that visit. The rule itself provides no information on this foundational visit. This is just one reason why the rule is fatally flawed. Finally, the industry argued vehemently that invasive pests historically infest urban areas prior to transiting commercial farming locations. USDA did not respond to that argument, which is also a violation of the Administrative Procedure Act.”

For the first two years, the ban will be lifted only in Northeastern states. The growers say this acknowledges the severe threat the Argentine imports pose to California, where so many residents have fruit trees in their back yards, to “provide ample host material for pests arriving from Argentina, and thereby facilitate potentially catastrophic spread in the United States.”

California farms and ranches produced $47 billion of revenue in 2015, despite the state’s devastating drought, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture. So valuable is its agricultural industry that California is one of few states with permanent checkpoints at interstate borders, where inspectors confiscate even store-bought citrus.

In Ventura County alone, the state’s top-producing lemon area, lemons bring in $260 million a year, according to the Ventura County Star. Citrus crops provide 22,000 jobs in California.

Argentina is the world’s biggest lemon producer. According to a May 18 article in the Buenos Aires Herald, with the ban lifted, Argentina would ship 16,500 to 22,000 tons of lemons a year to the United year.

California harvested 41,200,000 cartons of lemons in 2015; at 38 pounds per carton, that’s 782,800 tons, according to the latest crop report from the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

Argentina has not set a limit on how many lemons it will export, nor did the USDA study how the lifting of the ban might affect the U.S. industry, according to the growers’ lawsuit.

They seek a declaration that lifting the ban would violate the law, is an abuse of discretion, and an injunction.

The lawsuit does not elucidate the political motivations it says are behind the lifting of the ban, but relations between the United States and Argentina have been strained for decades. In 1976, a military coup overthrew President Isabel Peron and an estimated 30,000 people, mostly young people, were killed or disappeared. The junta fell in 1983 after it lost the Falklands War to Great Britain. Argentina has recognized March 24, the day of the coup and the start of the “Dirty War” ever since.

In 2003, declassified State Department documents revealed that Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had urged the Argentine military to act and said the U.S. would turn a blind eye to human rights violations. President Barack Obama visited Argentina in December last year and promised to release more classified documents about U.S. participation in the coup.

Argentina narrowly elected President Mauricio Macri in 2015. According to Fortune magazine, he has been restructuring the economy by eliminating tariffs, cutting subsidies and seeking more international investment. But he faces big challenges as inflation and unemployment continue to grow.

The decision to lift the import ban was made at about the same time as Obama’s visit in 2016. When Donald Trump was elected, the decision was initially put on hold, but then confirmed. The ban is to be lifted on May 26.

The plaintiffs, which include Santa Paula Creek Ranch, CPR Farms, Green Leaf Farms, Bravante Produce and Richard Bagdasarian Inc., are represented by Christopher Casamassima with Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr of Los Angeles.

A spokesman for APHIS said it does not comment on active litigation.