$9.3m in Budget to strengthen biosecurity and protect the foundations of NZ’s primary sector

The Coalition Government’s biosecurity initiatives receive $9.3 million in new operating funding in Budget 2018 over the next four years to improve offshore biosecurity systems and  better manage the risks posed by imports.

Further investment in biosecurity is needed as New Zealand’s global trade and tourist numbers increase, Biosecurity Minister Damien O’Connor says in a press statement

When he took up his portfolio six months ago, the Ministry for Primary Industries had several biosecurity responses under way, including Mycoplasma bovis, myrtle rust, Bonamia ostreae and kauri dieback.

Furthermore, ships carrying the brown marmorated stink bug have been turned back.

Besides the new funding, the Government will speed up the review of import health standards.

“Our plan makes sure the exotic pests and diseases that could devastate our economy and wildlife have less chance of making it here in the first place, giving growers and farmers greater certainty about the health of their crops and animals,” Mr O’Connor says.

“This Government’s leadership will improve the resilience of our primary sector. We moved quickly this year to put up $85 million new operating funding in 2017/18 for the frontline response to Mycoplasma bovis in partnership with the primary sector.”

An update will be provided in coming weeks on the next steps of the plan to deal with Mycoplasma bovis, a disease which Mr O’Connor described as a regrettable example of why biosecurity in New Zealand must be properly funded.

Another concern had been the underfunding of the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) during a time of increasing workload, he said.

“Budget 2018 addresses this with new operating funding of $38 million over two years for MPI to ensure our primary sector is well supported by Government initiatives as we work together to grow New Zealand’s reputation as the most trusted source of sustainable and premium natural products in the world.”

The Government is already reorganising MPI to house four business units so officials can concentrate on their core responsibilities of biosecurity, food safety, fisheries and forestry.

People around the world increasingly were buying products that align with their values, Mr O’Connor said.

New Zealand has a natural advantage, with a good record of animal welfare, grass-fed stock and brand recognition and the Government is determined to help this continue by properly funding MPI and the  critical biosecurity system.



Massey alumnus has taken his vet skills from Te Awamutu to the world

Te Awamatu veterinarian James Young’s experiences – from keeping 50,000 cattle healthy in China to performing a rectal exam on a four-tonne elephant in South Africa – is living proof that variety is a big part of a veterinary career, Massey University reports.

After graduating from Massey, Dr Young started working as a dairy vet in Te Awamutu but a year later – in 2007 – was asked if he wanted to go to China and help set up large scale dairy farms for Fonterra.

His clinic manager was supportive and within a week he had a visa and flew to China with a about 50kg of veterinary equipment, drugs, “basically prepared for anything!”

On his first day, he vaccinated a large herd in minus 20 degrees Celsius!

“My bones hurt, and the vaccine kept freezing between rows of cattle!”

The planned two-month stay turned into nearly a year and Dr Young became hooked on international work, returning to do other projects frequently in China.

In 2014, he was responsible for 50,000 cattle and 100 veterinarians and breeders as a chief veterinarian.

While a student, he had secured a place on an international vet student trip called SYMCO in South Africa.

With 90 vet students from around the world he toured several game parks

“…and got up close and personal with wild cheetah, elephant, lion and rhino, that had been darted for sampling, pregnancy testing and health checks. I convinced the wildlife vet manager to let me do a rectal exam on a heavily sedated four-tonne wild elephant.”

Dr Young completed a Master of Veterinary Public Health Management at the University of Sydney in 2009.

Three years later he was working with the Mekong Livestock Research team in a project manager role, working on research projects in Cambodia and Laos.

Those projects were designed to research ways of improving transboundary animal disease control, including Foot-and-mouth disease in the Mekong region.

The experience ignited Dr Young’s further interest in learning more about how livestock disease control is connected to wider food insecurity and poverty issues in the region. He started the PhD in early 2013 and completed it part-time over four and a half years, while employed full-time working as project manager.

His PhD focused on how to improve disease control and biosecurity in smallholder farms and their wider communities in Cambodia.

Alongside this work, since 2013 he has been an Animal Health Economics consultant for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (UN FAO) at the Regional Asia and Pacific office based out of Bangkok.

Dr Young is also interested in technology to help farmers identify and improve biosecurity, so he started developing farmer extension content with the aim of getting it online and scaled out widely and rapidly.

In 2017, he released the first farmer course in New Zealand called ‘Close The Gate’ which is a online training tool designed in response to the Mycoplasma bovis outbreak that hit the headlines in July 2017. The course is designed to be completed on a smart phone, and even be undertaken on the back of a quad bike while a farmer waits for the cows to walk up the race.

Source: Massey University



Ministers might know about tax – but what about the importance of taxonomy?


Want to give Science and Innovation Minister Steven Joyce something for Christmas?

Here’s an idea: a gift-wrapped copy of a report just published by the Royal Society of New Zealand – just in case he is much too busy to read it (or is disinclined to read it) before he knocks off for the Christmas-New Year holiday.

Biosecurity Minister Nathan Guy could benefit from being given a copy, too.

The society convened a panel of experts to provide recommendations on the  support, development, and management of New Zealand’s taxonomic collections and their future needs, including the taxonomic research, information systems, and expertise vital to make them useful.

The panel’s investigation identified inadequate and overall declining support for this nationally important resource.

The consequences are of huge concern to the nation for many reasons, including biosecurity ones:

Erosion of investment, particularly evident in the CRI sector, has seen loss of national capability in specialised expertise in taxonomy and curation through redundancies, reduced hours, and non-replacement of retiring staff. In addition it has led to collections being closed or having limits put on access, and reduced ability to protect specimens and deliver services.

Continued decline in support for the collections is a real risk for New Zealand, especially if it continues to occur largely out of sight and incrementally until a major event in the future highlights deficiencies.

The significance of this for the primary sector and NZIAHS members is spelled out in the executive summary of the panel’s report:

  • The primary production sector requires accurate and authoritative information to provide proof that products are pest- or disease-free for export markets and ongoing access. The identification of pests, pathogens, and biological contaminants is critical for maintaining market reputation especially in relation to food safety. In addition, taxonomy is essential for the identification of species that may have economic potential or attributes that, for example, would be valuable under changed climate conditions. Also of economic value is the development of innovative products on the basis of biodiscovery from native biota; species identification and distribution information are crucial for such activities.
  • Biosecurity, an important part of risk management for New Zealand’s economy, environment, and human health, depends on accurate, authoritative and rapid identifications of invasive organisms such as weeds, pests, toxin producers, and pathogens. Collections and knowledgeable research taxonomists provide the primary material and vouchers needed. Without such capacity, response to biosecurity threats would be based on little more than guesswork.

Among other issues, the paper says New Zealand has a clear international responsibility to identify, classify and protect its species, and meet international treaty obligations (eg the Convention on Biological Diversity, Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, environmental reporting in the OECD). This includes the obligation to implement the agreed-upon New Zealand Biodiversity Strategy, which calls for the protection of natural ecosystems, flora, and fauna.

Then there are legislated requirements for accurate and timely information about species, their distributions, and their interrelationships (eg the Resource Management Act, Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act, Environmental Impact Assessments as part of regulations such as the Extended Economic Zone and Continental Shelf Environmental Effects Act).

Further, New Zealand’s ability to provide certainty about the effects of resource use and management in the primary sector (agriculture, horticulture, forestry, aquaculture, wild fisheries, and mining) is heavily dependent on biological collections and taxonomic expertise.

Joyce needs to think hard about the panel’s concerns about a disconnect between the funding and delivery of services.

There is no apparent strategic alignment between the setting of short-term output priorities of departments and agencies, and the long-term input investment priorities of those providing the main funding to the collections’ infrastructure.

Despite their uniqueness and value, legal protection for collections exists only under the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa Act 1992, the Auckland War Memorial Museum Act, and Trust Board Acts of some metropolitan museums. In addition, the Protected Objects Act 1975 is now dated and provides protection for natural history specimens mainly in the area of sale and export outside of New Zealand.

The report says New Zealand’s publicly funded taxonomic workforce is only funded to spend a small proportion of their time on taxonomic research, far below the standards of Australia and Canada.

In a survey of 97 publicly funded taxonomists, the panel found 77% are funded to spend less than 25% of their time on taxonomic research and only 16% of the workforce is in the 20–40 age bracket.

This situation poses a real risk for New Zealand, for example in terms of succession planning. This is compounded by concerns over whether graduates in biology are sufficiently equipped with an understanding of basic taxonomic principles. .

By the time Joyce and Guy have digested the report’s observations and recommendations along with their Christmas dinner, they should have plenty of ideas for New Year resolutions.

For example, they might (and should) resolve to urgently address the immediate investment needs of the national taxonomic collections and research staff so that critical taxonomic expertise is restored, and that services and quality are not put at further risk.




Lincoln student in frontline of battle against stink bug

Lincoln University PhD student Laura Nixon is working on the development of a weapon in the fight to stop the brown marmorated stink bug coming into the country.

The bug is regarded by New Zealand’s horticulture industry as one of the top six pests of concern.

Ms Nixon’s research is funded through a multiorganisational research collaboration, Better Border Security (B3) and she is based at the Bio-Protection Research Centre on Lincoln’s Te Waihora campus.

Her aim is to come up with a way to chemically detect an infestation of the bugs in a confined space such as a shipping container, one of the ways it is envisaged the insect could make its way into the country.

The brown marmorated stink bug is an agricultural pest found in Asia, but it has invaded the United States and it is considered highly likely it could successfully establish in New Zealand if it gets here.

Since the insect arrived in the United States in the mid-1990s it has occasionally multiplied into plague proportions. In 2010 it caused US$37 million damage to apple crops across several states.

It feeds on more than 300 hosts, primarily fruit trees and woody ornamentals but also field crops. Almost any crop can be at risk.

Ms Nixon says the chemical compound, or the stink, the bugs emit when disturbed has been identified but she will work on trying to distinguish it from amongst other naturally emitted odours.

Initially she will work with native stink bugs, which are not considered pests, and then travel to the United States to see if her results can be used on the pest species.

She says the bugs are closely related so it is expected they will.

Ms Nixon says the bugs tend to live in big groups or aggregations, so if one container gets through then there could be a problem.

Hopefully her work will ensure it is stopped at the border, she says.

She says the method could be used to detect other insects such as ants and harlequin ladybirds which are also considered pests, though they present other challenges as they give of lower odour levels.

Her role involves developing the chemistry to the stage the odour can be detected and the commercial application may be undertaken by others.

Queensland fruit fly count is up to eight

An eighth fruit fly has been found in Auckland, but the Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) say it remains confident the outbreak can be contained, according to this report at Stuff. 

MPI have found three more Queensland fruit flies in Auckland over the past two days, all of them caught in traps, the report says.

More larvae have also been uncovered in fruit inside the Auckland containment zone but the Ministry said this was not a “game changer”.

All of the flies captured thus far were genetically similar, suggesting there was only one “incursion”.

“MPI remains confident it is dealing with a localised population of fruit fly that can be eradicated.”

A containment zone remains in place around the suburb of Grey Lynn, with people encouraged not to move fresh produce in and out of the area.

This could provide particularly challenging with tomorrow’s big cricket game at Eden Park, and the ministry is urging people not to take fresh fruit to the game. 58 MPI staff will attend the game, checking for fruit and removing about 10 tonnes of rubbish afterwards to minimise the risk.

The report explains that Queensland fruit flies have the potential to cause millions of dollars of damage to the New Zealand fruit industry, reducing the quality of fruit, the price exported fruit commands and potentially leading to great trade barriers for exporters.

Another Stuff report addresses the question: Why are we so afraid of the fruit fly?

The Science Media Centre earlier in the week collected expert commentary on the incursion and its containment. The expert observations can be found here.

Lincoln research is aimed at determining the origin of insect pests

Researchers in the Bio-Protection Research Centre at Lincoln University are developing a new way to reveal the birthplace of unwanted insect pests, information that is vital for managing pest incursions.

Despite stringent biosecurity measures, unwanted insects occasionally arrive in New Zealand from overseas in shipping containers and imported goods. If these pests breed and spread, they could have a huge impact on agriculture, horticulture, forestry and the environment.

Pinpointing the birthplace of an exotic insect pest is crucial for determining whether it is an isolated ‘hitchhiker’ or part of an established breeding population. This knowledge is helpful for biosecurity agencies, such as the Ministry for Primary Industries, to decide the best approach for dealing with an incursion.

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Biosecurity warning sounded: new pastures may create future weed threat

Breeding new fast-growing grass varieties that produce more seeds and are resistant to drought, pests, grazing and disease may inadvertently be creating the next generation of invasive weeds, an international team of researchers has warned.

As the global demand for dairy and beef escalates, farmers are increasingly seeking ways to reap greater productivity from their pastures.

The problem, according to Philip Hulme, Professor of Plant Biosecurity at Lincoln University and lead researcher at the Bio-Protection Research Centre, is that in making grass varieties more robust, they are more prone to becoming a problem for the environment.

The researchers have made four biosecurity recommendations for government, industry and researchers.

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