Biosecurity authority gets to grips with Psa

By Graham Skellern


The work in controlling the initial spread of the bacterial canker Psa has been done. The protection sprays have been sorted and a new Gold3 variety, more tolerant to the vine-killing disease, is about to be made widely available for growers to create a path to recovery.

Barry O'Neil, appointed as chief executive of Kiwifruit Vine Heath (KVH) to replace John Burke, wants to move to a new level of fighting Psa, which has rocked the $1.6 billion industry, 80 per cent of which is based in the Bay of Plenty.

O'Neil, a biosecurity expert, hopes to include the control of Psa in the national pest management strategy under the Biosecurity Act 1993.

There are already two strategies in place - TB eradication in cattle and American foulbrood bacteria in bees.

"We need to have more teeth with a rules regime," O'Neil says.

"Psa will continue to cause significant problems for the industry and we don't have a resistant variety.

"The new Gold3 is tolerant and works when you have good orchard management and hygiene in place.

"The rules should be fair and equitable to everyone.

"If my neighbour creates a risk for me, I can't do anything about that.

"We are reliant on the good will of the growers and the industry."

An official Psa management strategy would outline precautions taken against the disease, including transport of equipment and plant material from infected areas.

O'Neil says areas of non-compliance will be addressed, but not necessarily with fines.

"If an orchard was abandoned or diseased and vines had to be removed or managed, then KVH would have the authority to step in and the bill would be sent to the owner.

"The whole aim of the strategy is to keep some areas free of Psa (such as Northland, Hawkes's Bay, Gisborne and Nelson), and to keep other areas such as Te Puke contained and support the recovery."

O'Neil says the plan will be sent to growers next month to gauge their support.

The direction of KVH is changing to support the industry on Psa control and wider biosecurity controls and management.

"Growers need to understand how to grow kiwifruit with Psa around and there needs to be continued research about the best tools to use to manage the disease," O'Neil says.

"We also need to consider other biosecurity risks to kiwifruit production such as fruitfly.

O'Neil is an ideal manager for the next stage of KVH.

His biosecurity knowledge is unchallenged and he also has personal experience in growing kiwifruit.

Te Puke bred, he bought a kiwifruit and avocado orchard at Whakamara in 1984 and sold it in 1989 when he was transferred to Wellington with the Ministry of Agriculture.

Later, he bought a property at Ongarere Point, Katikati, that included a two-canopy green kiwifruit orchard, managed by a contractor. He hasn't got Psa on his orchard but is well aware of the implications.

When Gold3 was released on a limited scale in 2010, before Psa struck later that year, he replaced half an acre of green vines.

O'Neil grafted more Gold3 last year but still has more green to cut out. "I didn't want to muck around. We've run strict hygiene and crop protection spray regimes.

"Every orchardist should be following them."

After graduating with a bachelor of veterinary science degree from Massey University in 1978, O'Neil joined Gil Sinclair at the Barkes Corner Veterinary Clinic in Tauranga.

In 1984, O'Neil switched to the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry's quality management meat division and, two years later, moved to the animal health section in Tauranga responsible for TB control and the export of animals.

He went to Wellington in December 1989 to work with the ministry's export and import division and, from 1991-94, was seconded to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Brussels.

On his return to New Zealand he became the Government's chief veterinary officer and then, in the late 1990s, he moved from technical to policy management and became the assistant and deputy director-general, specialising in biosecurity.

O'Neil left the ministry last year to form his own consultancy firm, Biosecurity NZ.

For three years he was president of the World Organisation for Animal Health, based in Paris, and was involved with a consortium developing biosecurity and agricultural polices in Abu Dhabi.

With the planning there finished and the policies implemented, it was time to take up a new role back in the Western Bay.

His parents at one stage owned three farms in the Bay - a dairy farm on No2 Rd, Te Puke, and at Awakeri, and a sheep and beef farm at Pah Rd.

The No2 Rd property became a kiwifruit orchard in the early 1970s and has since been sold.

Asked if he knows how Psa was introduced to New Zealand, O'Neil says the ministry has done a trace-back report but was unable to identify the cause directly. It has commissioned an independent review to see if anything can be identified.

"Was it nursery stock illegally brought into the country, or pollen, or researchers coming back without washing their equipment?

"It's a bit like looking for a needle in a haystack.

"But it's really important to find out how Psa came into New Zealand because we don't want anything else to come in.

"The problem now is it's here and we have to learn to work with it."

- Hamilton News

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