This month marks two years since a disease that attacks kiwifruit began to sweep through New Zealand's orchards.
The cost to the industry has been projected to hit $885 million in the long term, but with new research to combat Psa-V on the horizon, the kiwifruit industry is determined to put up a fight. Talia Shadwell reports.
Consumers perusing New Zealand kiwifruit-laden supermarket shelves are yet to see hints in the grocery aisles of an industry in the throes of a survival battle.
That will soon change, says Zespri science and innovation general manager Dave Tanner.
"The impact you will see will be in the next season, which harvests in April and May. You may well not see as much kiwifruit on the shelves in New Zealand, particularly the golden kiwifruit."
This November marks two years to the month since a virulent strain of the Pseudomonas syringae pv actinidiae (Psa-V) bacterium began to attack New Zealand's kiwifruit orchards.
This week it was confirmed Psa-V has spread to Gisborne. The affected orchard is one of 1995 nationwide now confirmed Psa-V positive, affecting 68 per cent of New Zealand's kiwifruit hectares.
However, the industry has been geared into action, establishing monitoring co-operative Kiwifruit Vine Health with government support.
While some will fall victim to the steep costs of the Psa-V onslaught, Tanner says the industry as a whole is trying to keep its outlook on the fruit's future fresh.
"If we decided that we were dead, we would be dead," he says.
"The industry is quite positive in terms of that it is going to fight. It is a hard battle. It is a long battle. It is not going to be over in the next 12 months. It is going to take time to overcome it."
The horticulture industry is no stranger to bacterial battles and growers have to find a way to live in harmony with Psa-V, Tanner says.
"This caught us a little because it is a disease that is not well known and it is very destructive. We have had a lot of horticultural scientists say they do not believe they have seen anything be so destructive so quickly.
"It has put up a fight, but it doesn't mean it's going to win."
A Ministry for Primary Industries report released this July left a sour taste among kiwifruit producers, laying out evidence that Psa-V's destruction could have been nipped in the bud had the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries monitored biosecurity and import regulations more efficiently.
Today, the billion-dollar kiwifruit industry remains in the grip of the disease, as Psa-V continues its destructive journey south and growers have been forced to pre-emptively rip out susceptible crops and plant new, more Psa-V-tolerant varieties of gold kiwifruit, which may take longer to reach harvest quality, Tanner says.
However, Psa-V has so far left the growing region that stretches from Whanganui to Horowhenua untouched.
The relative geographical isolation of the region has meant the bacterium - which travels on pollen and wind and can even spread between orchards on travelling farm equipment and shoes - has so far been kept at bay.
KEEPING DISEASE AT BAY Crown research institute Plant & Food is among the think-tanks globally scrambling to produce a remedy that will get Psa-V under control.
Plant & Food Psa-V response leader Stuart Kay says researchers' short-term focus has been on protection and management, with new ways to stem the spread of the bacterium including a plan to cover orchards to protect from Psa-V-bearing wind and rain.
In the long term, scientists are trying to unlock the patterns of evolution in the bacterium, for understanding Psa-V's origins and mechanisms will help the plant defend against its attacker the same way scientists seek to determine different types of flu strain every year.
Understanding what they are dealing with and where it has come from will help scientists create plants resistant to different strains of Psa-V.
It is a race against time for the growers who have so far remained untouched.
Whanganui kiwifruit grower Noel Cooper and family have four orchards totalling 55 hectares in Whanganui, the largest kiwifruit operation in the region.
Cooper Coolpac's orchards, with packing facilities and coolstore all on site, experienced a strong harvest this year, taking on more than 100 workers ahead of the May harvesting season.
As a grower of green kiwifuit, Cooper maintains hope the bacterium will stay away for a while longer.
"Where we are here, it is a smaller growing region. Even though our orchard is quite large, they are geographically remote, not like Te Puke."
However, he accepts it is only a matter of time. "There is not any Psa-V here, but it is a question not of if but when.
"The effects of Psa-V haven't really bitten yet. It is going to hammer the industry."
Cooper is a Kiwifruit Vine Health regional monitor and has kept a close eye on the disease's spread in the Hawke's Bay area, where he has watched indebted producers crippled by the issue.
"We are fortunate that we are in a position that unfortunately a lot of the people hit in the Hawke's Bay are not. They are debt ridden and they can't shake it," he says.
Cooper is now aged in his 70s. If Psa-V hits his family's orchards, it will mean a career change for his son, Andrew, who is in line to take the reins.
"If Psa-V hit [us], we wouldn't spend a dollar on it," he says.
"The costs of dealing with this problem are enormous.
"Until some solution comes out of this, we hope that Psa-V will be kept at bay in our region.
"If it did come [here] in a dramatic way, we wouldn't spend anything on it. We would just change direction."
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