22 September 2019

Horticulture heresy – garlic swindle uncovered 'guru' pleads guilty

| Alex Rea
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Garlic cloves ready for planting. Photo: Alex Rea

The Australian garlic industry is in shock with Leticia Ware, Tasmanian garlic grower, ‘guru’ of the industry, and Chair of the Australian Garlic Industry Association (AGIA), charged with the illegal importation of garlic.

In fact, anyone aware of the implications for Australian agriculture would have been dumbfounded.

In early September, Ware pleaded guilty to 10 charges; three counts of aggravated illegal importation of plants, and seven counts of importing conditionally non-prohibited goods.

Biosecurity is the big threat, garlic as a known host for a serious plant pathogen known as ‘Xylella fastidiosa’, which is not present in Australia, but is native to the United States and Canada. Xylella could put at risk over 350 native, commercial and ornamental plant species in Australia.

Garlic can also host a number of other exotic pathogens and pests, including a bacteria that causes such diseases as leaf blight, onion smut and leaf spot.

Xylella (Xylella fastidiosa). Photo: Agriculture.com.au

Ware’s business, Tasmanian Gourmet Garlic boasts the “Largest range of specialty culinary & seed garlic in Australia.”

The website states, “We are passionate about garlic and bringing the best of the world’s culinary and seed garlic to Australia.”

“With currently 56 cultivars, we have another 80 cultivars on the way. Our natural selection breeding programs rigorously cull for vigour, plant health and flavour for three years before releasing to the public.

“We grow with naturally fertile, healthy, biologically active soils for plant health and bulb flavour and are committed to our Certified Organic status.”

Ware has won many awards for her garlic, the business also provided training and tours and provided excellent free advice for growers through social media channels, she even appeared on Gardening Australia. However, of great concern to growers is that she sold garlic varieties around the country – including into Southern NSW.

When the charges became public Ware stepped down as Chair of the Association and has subsequently been sentenced to 11 months gaol.

Garlic hanging to cure. Photo: Alex Rea

The AGIA Board released a statement saying “Remaining board members were unaware of Leticia’s illegal activities, whose actions contravene AGIA’s objectives to support a thriving and healthy Australian garlic industry.”

“The board strongly condemns any behaviour that jeopardises biosecurity or the Australian agricultural industry.

“We understand that many Garlic Growers are concerned for the safety of their own crops, and can take some level of relief that Justice Gleeson (Sic) found that this imported garlic was not diseased.”

There are several astounding things about this case.

First, it was not a one-off, and second – Ware was a highly regarded teacher to many.

Ware wrote to her supplier, “Please do not declare garlic on customs as it will be picked up through quarantine. Many thanks, Letetia.”

Further, she gave instructions to those suppliers about how to pack the product in order to minimise the risk of interception.

In sentencing last week, Justice Geason said, “you did so without complying with any of the mandatory requirements for the importation of those bulbils.”

“The law does not confer upon you or anyone else a right of self-regulation, the authority to make your own assessment about risk, and your own judgment about the need to comply.

“Your conduct demonstrates that you saw yourself as above compliance with Australia’s quarantine laws. There is an arrogance in your behaviour.

“Indeed, I am amazed that you could, on the one hand, claim organic accreditation, and all that certification stands for, and, at the same time, flagrantly flout the quarantine regime with all the risks to agriculture that that course of conduct entails,” Justice Geason said.

The DPI says in 2012 approximately 300 to 500 tonnes of garlic was produced in Australia and 3,500 tonnes was imported. Photo: Alex Rea

The Judge said Ware had never held an import permit for the importation of garlic.

It was not a one-off event either. Ware imported 2,186 garlic bulbils on 21 occasions.

In 2015 the Department of Agriculture intercepted an illegal shipment to Ware which was destroyed. Justice Geason observed that “intervention by the authorities did not cause you to reflect on your behaviour and to desist.”

“So determined were you in avoiding your obligations that you even chastised some suppliers when they failed to follow your instructions about mis-declaring the garlic,” Justice Geason said.

“This offending continued over a period of 18 months, ceasing only upon your being caught. You cannot claim that this was a mere aberration.”

Leticia Ware leaves court Photo: Gardening Australia Facebook.

Ware pleaded guilty to the charges.

While the maximum penalty applicable to each offence is imprisonment for 10 years, or a pecuniary penalty of $360,000, or both, the Judge directed that Ware “be released from custody after serving two months of that sentence on condition that you enter into a recognisance in the sum of $2,000, and are of good behaviour for a period of three years.”

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Nothing but a slap on the wrist from what could have been devastation to the Australian Garlic Industry.

The sentence is way too lenient.

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