Jamie Morton is the NZ Herald's science reporter.

Scientist warns biosecurity at risk from new trade deals

Great white cabbage butterfly.
Great white cabbage butterfly.

A prominent agricultural scientist says New Zealand deserves only a half-mark for its biosecurity efforts - and warns that new free-trade agreements and increased tourism could pose a threat at the border.

Former AgResearch manager John Lancashire has told a national forum the Government had much room for improvement in safeguarding our precious primary sector against major incursions.

He gave the country an overall score of just 55 per cent - particularly citing "tremendous pressure" from the Government for more free-trade agreements.

It comes as new figures show this year's harvest of gold kiwifruit amounted to 12 million trays - less than half that yielded by average seasons before Psa-V hit the industry in 2010.

It has been estimated the disease would cost Bay of Plenty kiwifruit growers $200 million this year.

Speaking at a forum hosted by the New Zealand Institute of Agricultural and Horticultural Science yesterday, Mr Lancashire said the country had experienced a "peak" of incursions, among them Psa and fruit fly.

He gave the Government a three out of 10 score for its recent track record and two out of 10 for the "external pressures", such as conflicts from its free-trade agreements, it was putting on biosecurity.

Despite a recent outbreak response simulation, the country was not prepared for a foot-and-mouth incursion that posed a devastating damage toll of $10-$15 billion, he said.

Mr Lancashire also noted a lack of long-term planning by the Ministry for Primary Industries and criticised constant restructuring within it, calling on politicians to "butt out".

"We have to work a lot smarter - the less we do, a world-class [system] will be aspirational," he said.

"Half the golden kiwifruit was destroyed last year, varroa mite is rampant in Southland ... so I think we've got a way to go yet."

Horticulture New Zealand chief executive Peter Silcock valued the horticulture industry at $6.6 billion and said incursions - such as tomato-potato psyllid which caused some $50 million damage to the potato industry in the 2008/09 season alone - would prevent it from reaching its growth goal of $10 billion by 2020.

Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy dismissed criticism over staff cuts, saying a 2 per cent decrease in border security staff since 2008 reflected a post-recession trade downturn, and more than 50 new staff had been recruited over recent months as trade picked up again.

Mr Guy said the challenge was to grow trade but protect the country from foreign pests.

"It can't be a choice between these two goals - we have got to do both."

Major incursions

• Western flower thrips - 1992

• Guava moth - 1997

• Varroa mite - 2000

• Lettuce aphid - 2002

• Iris yellow spot virus - 2006

• Tomato potato psyllid - 2006

• Psa-V - 2010

• Great white cabbage butterfly - 2010

• Hadda beetle - 2010

- NZ Herald

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