Andrew Fenton: Fruit fly alert shows what's at stake

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Psa, the disease that attacks kiwifruit, has already caused a lot of damage. Photo / Supplied
Psa, the disease that attacks kiwifruit, has already caused a lot of damage. Photo / Supplied

Biosecurity cuts are false economy of the worst kind, writes Andrew Fenton, president of Horticulture New Zealand.

Flying home from Australia recently, I found myself wondering how many of the multinational group of passengers on my flight were visiting New Zealand for the first time and, if so, what they would make of our border control systems.

I am a fruitgrower, an occupation that is experiencing heightened public awareness thanks to the discovery of a single male Queensland fruit fly in an Auckland trap.

For the first-time visitors sharing my flight, the "rigours" of border control greeting them in Auckland might have come as a shock. Many would probably be accustomed to the borderless European Union or travel in Asia where it's possible to carry all kinds of plant material on board a plane.

But what might be considered a harmless, healthy snack for many of these visitors is not harmless to me and 6000 other fruit and vegetable growers.

A piece of fruit they didn't get around to eating and dropped into their bag could be potentially devastating for my business and that of growers across New Zealand.

I shudder to think about a 1.5km controlled area like the one in Avondale now being transposed to my hometown of Te Puke in the peak of the kiwifruit harvesting season.

Just one fruit fly could ruin my livelihood and change the face of growing across New Zealand. Psa, the disease that attacks kiwifruit, is already having a damn good go. The potato and tomato industries are investing heavily to fight a nasty bug called psyllid; foot and mouth disease could benext.

What then? Forget the fruit-laden orchards and abundant roadside stalls that tourists find so charming. Forget the vast fields of sheep that are an iconic symbol of New Zealand for international visitors.

One or two serious incursions and vast swathes of our horticulture and agriculture sector could be staring into the abyss for years, resulting in a huge blow to our primary industries, a key driver of the economy.

A combination of the Government's cost cuts and its drive to boost tourism is putting the squeeze on our border controls. Many of these changes are not about efficiency and effectiveness. They are about creating a better experience for tourists, and cutting costs.

The discovery of the Queensland fruit fly in Auckland shows that restructuring for "efficiencies" has failed and is now putting the primary industry at tremendous risk.

Way back in 1996, successive fruit fly detections led to the introduction of biosecurity x-rays for passenger bags. In the intervening 16 years we didn't find a single fruit fly in traps. Last year the Government abandoned its 100 per cent baggage x-ray policy and last week we found a Queensland fruit fly in a trap.

Growers do not believe that's a coincidence.

Ministry for Primary Industries staff are superb and dedicated to robust border control systems but they can only work with the resources they are given.

Surveillance beyond the airports and ports is good but it's only there to catch the ball after border security has dropped it.

We all support more efficient government but when it comes to biosecurity, effectiveness is what it's all about, because the cost to us all is so great if we get it wrong.

Earlier this year, Jamaican footballer Tramaine Steward was fined $400 after an apple was found in his bag at Auckland Airport. He had passed numerous "declare or dispose" signs and gone through a series of questions from immigration and uniformed inspectors before the apple was picked up in his bag by an x-ray machine. He said, and I'm sure it was true, that he simply "forgot" the apple was in his bag.

How many others forget and slip through without their bags being x-rayed? Put bluntly, the reduced screening "direct exit" policy is window dressing.

This cost-cutting is putting our agriculture and horticulture industries at grave risk. And at what cost? To save travellers passing through our airports 10 or 15 minutes - this is complete lunacy.

For frequent travellers, the dropping of the 100 per cent baggage x-ray has sent all the wrong messages and significantly reduced the importance of biosecurity in their minds.

The Government needs to stop undermining the importance of stringent border controls before it's too late. HortNZ has called for the reinstatement of 100 per cent x-raying of baggage.

We also need increased funding for more detector dogs, which have proven to be most effective in identifying food, plants and pests at our borders.

Passing through Auckland Airport after my flight from Australia, a detector dog passed me without interest before becoming very animated around another passenger. Biosecurity officers immediately closed in for a thorough inspection.

I wonder, what if this person had been arriving in Wellington where there have been no detector dogs on duty since 2011?

Andrew Fenton is president of Horticulture New Zealand (HortNZ), and is a Te Puke kiwifruit and avocado grower.

- NZ Herald

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