How Govt policy is threatening NZ’s biosecurity – and its primary exports

This post has been contributed by JOHN LANCASHIRE, a former President of the NZ Institute of Agricultural and Horticultural Science –

It’s “unbelievable and unexpected” was the comment made by Peter Silcock , Horticulture New Zealand’s CEO, on hearing of the third detection of fruit fly in this country in less than two years.

Prior to these most recent occurrences it had been 16 years since the last known incursion.

It may well be unbelievable considering the huge amount of resource being put into biosecurity and the prevention of pest and weed incursions, but unexpected, certainly not. Most of our many serious pest incursions come from Australia, either carried by humans or occasionally blown over. The former comes via formal tourist and visitor routes, typically through airports or informal arrivals via private yachts which have been suggested as a possible source of the recent fruit fly incursion near Whangarei. Indeed, the present massive epidemic of Queensland fruit fly in Australia made such an incursion almost inevitable.

The Prime Minster has rightly said that questions should be asked around whether there are faults in our biosecurity system and whether fumigation of private yachts should be considered. Unfortunately Mr Key presides over a government whose policies are quite clearly putting our biosecurity at risk and undermine the strenuous efforts by the Ministry for Primary Industries to keep us pest-free.

As Minister of Tourism, Mr Key has pushed hard for a seamless border for travellers between Australia and New Zealand which has reduced visitor screening for possible insect incursions – for example, replacing 100% X-ray scanning with random checks. Two former biosecurity officers believe that screening shortcuts at the border have increased the chances of pests getting through.

Such undermining of our biosecurity is illustrated by gung-ho statements from the CEO of the Airports Authority that we are pushing visitors through our airports faster than Australia. All very impressive – but at what cost to biosecurity?

Pushing on with Free Trade Agreements is a major policy plank of the Key government and the Ministry of Primary Industry has been instructed to consider international trade arrangements when making biosecurity risk assessments. In fact the Government has taken six years of litigation against NZ Pork to force through the importation of raw pig meat.

The industry remains adamant that this poses a risk of importing a very nasty virus disease known as PRRS, but the Ministry believes there is only a “slight’ risk of this happening.

In the meantime the honey industry is similarly fighting to restrict the importation of honey from Australia which they believe poses unacceptable diseases risks. This case is pending.

Irrespective, both examples are not only costing the taxpayer a lot of money, but the NZ Pork industry itself spent $1.5 million in its forlorn bid to protect itself.

Another Government initiative that must have adverse effects on our biosecurity performance has involved the massive and seemingly continual restructuring of Departments and Ministries. The current Ministry for Primary Industries (formerly MAF), which is rightly responsible for biosecurity, has been restructured almost annually during the last decade. Presumably such continual restructuring is supposed to somehow increase ‘efficiency’. Furthermore the widely recognised and criticised conflict of interest – whereby the Ministry maintains both policy (such as food safety, animal welfare and trade issues) and regulatory functions (biosecurity) – remains unresolved.

At a time when we are in a biosecurity crisis in this country it is surprising that two Government-appointed advisory committees have recently made recommendations that effectively gut biosecurity in this country. The much-touted National Science Challenges were required by Minister Joyce to be reduced from 11 to 10. This was achieved by combining the biosecurity and biodiversity challenges, which effectively at least halved the funding available for both areas which remain seriously under-resourced.

The final nail in the coffin of biosecurity and pest management research has been the decision by the Tertiary Education Commission to stop funding the annual grant of $3.4 million for the Bio-protection Research Centre at Lincoln which specialises in long term research on biosecurity and control of pests and diseases.

It is extraordinary that in such a tiny country the government and the bureaucracy seem to be disconnected from what is going on in our major industries. A collapse of our horticultural exports ($4 billion per year) or even an outbreak of Foot and Mouth disease threatening meat exports (up to $15 billion per year) through a biosecurity breach would destroy our economy for a generation.

What is going on?

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