Editorial: Kiwifruit problems show MAF's failings

Last updated 05:00 06/07/2012

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OPINION: The inquiry into the biosecurity breach that has decimated the $1.5 billion kiwifruit industry makes for alarming reading.

The exact means by which the virulent strain of Pseudomonas syringae pv. actinidiae, Psa for short, made its way from Italy to the Bay of Plenty may never be known.

But the report reveals there was no shortage of avenues by which it could have got here. It could have come on imported pollen, nursery stock, orchard equipment or smuggled plant material, or it could have been transported by people moving between Psa-infected areas and New Zealand.

The ministry that was supposed to be protecting New Zealand against imported pests was asleep at the wheel and the industry organisation did not raise the alarm. Both were afflicted by a smug complacency which is projected to cost the industry up to $410 million over the next five years and has left some individual growers facing ruin.

Bewilderingly, kiwifruit marketer Zespri had firsthand knowledge of the virulence of the new strain of Psa through its operations in Italy, but it flagged no concerns to the Agriculture and Forestry Ministry, now the Primary Industries Ministry, and was unaware that some of its New Zealand suppliers were importing pollen to propagate their fruit.

However, the lion's share of responsibility belongs to MAF. The scale of the ministry's failings is revealed by the fact that it had not even considered the consequences of the new strain spreading to this country till a reporter from the now-defunct New Zealand Press Association asked in April 2010 what it had done to evaluate the potential risk. The answer was nothing. The inquiry sparked a brief flurry of internal emails, but no action.

By contrast, within a month of an article by the reporter being published in The Sydney Morning Herald, Australia had initiated a comprehensive review of the risks posed by Psa and introduced a testing regime for pollen imports.

Whether prompter action would have prevented the new strain reaching New Zealand's shores is a moot point. By the time its presence was detected at a Te Puke orchard in November 2010 it may have already been here for a considerable time. Psa can remain dormant in plants for up to three years.

However, the ministry's failure to spot the early warning signs in Italy, and the lack of urgency it displayed when it learned the scientific assumptions on which it had been relying were out of date, raise concerns about its internal processes and also about the way successive governments have tinkered with the different elements of the ministry, like girls rearranging their dolls.

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Since 1995 New Zealand has had an Agriculture and Fisheries Ministry, an Agriculture Ministry, an Agriculture and Forestry Ministry and now a Primary Industries Ministry. Wayne McNee, the director-general of the new organisation, says New Zealand has a world class biosecurity system.

He has work to do before the rest of the country shares his confidence.

- The Dominion Post

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