When the kiwifruit industry knew the bacterial disease PSA was in Italy and Chile, perhaps New Zealand might have thought it was coming down the track.
JILL GALLOWAY talks to horticulture guru Ian Warrington.
Ian Warrington is quick to say he is not critical of the kiwifruit industry's response to the disease, but he is concerned at the lack of research going into such diseases, their hosts and the environment.
"It puts our multi-billion-dollar horticultural and agricultural exports at risk," he says.
Professor Warrington knows a bit about research and the politics involved.
He was the former chief executive of HortResearch (now Plant and Food Research).
Most recently, he was professor of horticulture at Massey University.
He is on the board of the International Society for Horticultural Science.
He is also the editor of the journal of the American Pomological Society, which specialises in fruit and nuts.
"It's a wake-up call for the industry, which has been lucky in that it has had no major pest incursions before," says Prof Warrington.
As a result, he says, people have become complacent.
"Now people will look more closely at hygiene, containment methods for contractors and other factors like allowing visitors to walk around kiwifruit orchards."
It is now more than a week since the bacterial disease (some have called it a virus, to Prof Warrington's horror), Pseudomonas syringae pv actinidiae (PSA) was found in an orchard in the Bay of Plenty.
Scientists are completing tests that will determine what strain of the disease is present.
Yesterday, 13 cases of PSA had been verified. A further 16 orchards were under quarantine and are being tested for the bacteria.
But kiwifruit growers warn it should not be thought of or talked of as a crisis, which would have a big impact on exports. Rather, it should be seen as a challenge for New Zealand kiwifruit growers.
The results of which strain it is will yield important information that will help determine the best way to limit or eradicate the disease.
However, Prof Warrington is concerned that successive governments have been tardy in funding applied research into basic diseases.
"All our commercial plants grown in New Zealand are imported – our pasture plants, pinus radiata, kiwifruit, our fruit trees. You can't close the borders to all plants.
"Some of the underpinning research around basic disease was stopped under this and past governments because they weren't seen as a priority.
"We have to know what to do when these disease strike."
Prof Warrington is also concerned at what might be seen as compartmentalising research.
"The Government funding there has been has been for `blue-sky' research and the thought was the revelant industry [kiwifruit, sheep and beef, fruit trees and vegetable] would pay for and do their own research," he says. But there is a lot of crossover and a huge amount of public good in these industries. A disease, such as PSA, not only may cost the country a lot in export losses, but there are major risks to people who work in those industries, harvesting, packing, trucking and freighting.
Prof Warrington says 80 per cent of the kiwifruit production is in the Bay of Plenty.
It means the contracting, picking, packing and shipping are done efficiently from there.
As well as most of the industry being based in the Bay of Plenty, there are only two kiwifruit species, green and gold.
Those species are the mainstay of the kiwifruit industry.
"There is a sting in that tail. The kiwifruit industry is exposed as much as it could possibly be to any pest scenario through being grown mostly in one area and having such a limited genetic base," he says.
The population of New Zealand has generally become urbanised, and politicians are mostly focussed on urban vote.
It means they care less about primary production than they used to, when many politicians had farms and very rural electorates.
They see PSA as a rural problem, that rural people can afford to fix, rather than seeing that it may have an impact on many urban people through their jobs.
Prof Warrington says governments should continue to invest strongly in the primary industries.
"The country depends on plants and animals for its income."
He says thousands of people are employed in the kiwifruit industry, and there has been concern from Maori over the potential loss of jobs.
"There is a public good component that surrounds these industries.
"They are all tied up. It is not just growers but all the people employed in the service sectors. Cities and towns such as Te Puke, Katikati and Tauranga would not be the same without the kiwifruit industry."
In the 1970s, Prof Warrington says he was among researchers who grew kiwifruit to learn more about them.
"We observed symptoms of a bacterial disease in Hayward [green] kiwifruit at the time. It was an orange-red ooze, like PSA. We never confirmed what it was and no one was very interested. It didn't spread within small populations.
"We cut it out of vines and we sprayed. That controlled it."
He, like others, is not sure how long PSA has been in New Zealand. It could be years.
"Bay of Plenty had an atypical winter and spring, being very wet, and it is warm now. Perhaps the climate brought on the bacterial infection that we're seeing now. There is a similar bacterial disease – fire blight on apples.
"It is far more serious in parts of North America than New Zealand, primarily because they have a harder winter, and a rapid onset to a very warm and humid spring."
But New Zealand needs to do much more research on the environment, host plant and the pathogen.
"Not just so we know more about diseases and their impact, but also the impact that climate change has on our major crop plants."
You ignore such research at your peril, Prof Warrington says.
"Spare a thought for Dr Harvey Smith, who was the head of the crop division of DSIR some years ago.
"He said New Zealand should open all its borders.
"The idea behind that radical thinking was that things were going to get here anyway, and that you can get too complacent by believing they wouldn't."
Prof Warrington mentions biosecurity breaches of the past years.
"Painted apple moth, varroa mite, white clover weevil, an exotic ant, and years ago, of course, the possum."
They were all pests. Some were eradicated, but others are now well established.
Finding which strain it is will yield important information that will help determine the best way to limit or eradicate the disease.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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