Foreign thorns among the roses

By Carroll du Chateau

The velvet-red bunches of roses parked in buckets outside the dairy are enticing. Only $8 for 12 stems, they are still tight-budded and healthy-looking. A quick inspection reveals that they're fresh. And last month's bunch lasted weeks.

There is no way of knowing whether the roses are grown down the road, flown up from the South Island or imported. And certainly no tell-tale sign that they have been dipped to their necks in Roundup.

Yet, if they are imported from India - which they probably are at that price - they should have, by law, been immersed for 20 minutes. Which means, in turn, they are technically dead and should last only five to six days - or half the vase life of local roses.

The fact that many imported roses are surviving much longer than they should is a serious concern for the horticultural industry. It also raises concerns about New Zealand's biosecurity protection system which is designed to prevent unwanted pests and diseases entering the country.

The thought of Roundup in a vase in the sitting room may be daunting, but the thought of Indian roses entering New Zealand without being dipped or "devitalised"is even more alarming for rose growers and other horticulturalists.

By international standards Roundup treatment is not extreme. Australia considers imported roses such dangerous carriers they are routinely fumigated with methyl bromide, which kills pests - and the roses themselves - outright.

Here the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries Biosecurity rely on phytosanitary certificates issued by the MAF equivalent in their country of origin to certify roses are disease-free and "devitalised".

Once they arrive, MAF visually checks 10 per cent of consignments for visible signs of insects or disease. There is no testing to prove they have been devitalised. Moreover Biosecurity New Zealand's Brendan McDonald told Auckland rose growers that he is unconvinced we need to dip anyway: "New Zealand and Australia are the only two countries requiring devitalisation which is based on an outdated risk analysis," he wrote.

McDonald believes the Indian rose pathway is "relatively clean": over the past two years approximately 84 per cent of consignments passed on-arrival inspection.

Local growers, on the other hand, are concerned that 16 per cent of roses showed visible problems. David Blewden, chairman of the New Zealand Rose Growers' Association says, "that's not clean, that's too many!"

Worse, Biosecurity want local growers to pay for clean-ups.

"Because we're considered beneficiaries of a "clean country" we should pay," says Kaukapakapa tomato grower, Tony Ivicevich.

"But we didn't want these insects and diseases here in the first place."

Blewden and associates became suspicious about whether appropriate biosecurity measures were being taken 18 months ago, after customers remarked on the cheaper roses' marvellous longevity.

A member on a business trip, was told by Indian rose growers that they only needed to treat a small number of boxes from each consignment for New Zealand and then to mark those boxes so they could be "pulled out" during the inspection process.

He was appalled. "MAF should be randomly selecting boxes for testing, rather than only looking at those presented to them."

Although the flower growers wrote to MAF Biosecurity, there was little response. "They told us keep our concerns strictly confidential," says Blewden. "Then, after five months, they couldn't find any evidence [that roses had not been devitalised].

"That's when we started a trial test of our own."

The only proof that roses have not been dipped is by propagating them. The Rose Growers' trial used the stem stock of seven varieties of imported Indian roses. Despite showing signs of Roundup with young growth slightly distorted, they grew through it and went on to flower.

"This proved that the level of treatment these roses had been subjected to was insignificant. The slightest whiff if glyphosphate (Roundup) would kill a plant."

The experiment was repeated four times including one planting at Crop and Food nurseries in Palmerston North. Imported roses from four different regions in India and several different suppliers were tested. "And in every single case we were able to propagate these roses!"

And there the West Auckland-based plants stand. The most mature of them sport lush apricot and yellow flowers on long, slender stems, the most recently propagated just about to flower - and all grown from imported Indian rose stock.

These stems could have been tossed on any backyard compost heap, and though they would be unlikely to sprout, fungus diseases and microscopic pests could have thrived - so causing more problems for local growers.

Blewden says, "We're trying to reduce our pesticide/fungicide use. But every time there's a biosecurity breach they make it harder for local growers to reduce chemicals."

Lance Straker of Flower Imex, the largest importer of cut flowers in New Zealand, is adamant that Indian roses are up to phytosanitary standard. "All flowers go into a MAF enc boxes [for inspection] themselves at random."

The number of Indian roses coming into New Zealand has increased dramatically. Straker's catalogue shows 34 colours and styles from the white Iceberg to the dusky pink, tight-blooming Pretty Bride.

The roses arrive, packed like sardines 500 to a box. They are immediately chilled to 2 degrees, plunged into deep water to rehydrate them, then the outside petals are peeled off. "It slows the death rate."

Straker says they cost around 45 cents a stem landed, plus 30 cents grooming: total 75 cents each.

Cost aside, in total New Zealand imported 1.741 million roses in 2005/06. By 2006/7 that increased to 3.758 million and by 2007/08 to 3.810 million.

As Blewden says, "More than 3 million roses would have come into the country since we told Biosecurity about our concerns. And nothing happened in all that time."

It is not as if New Zealand takes biosecurity lightly. Biosecurity Minister Jim Anderton says he is proud of our record. But, points out Blewden, because our inspection process is not rigorous enough, we are putting our entire horticultural export market at risk. "Why take the chance?"

Tony Iviscevich is seriously concerned. "Biosecurity see themselves as there to facilitate incoming trade. And they're very tough on outgoing trade. There are no fines for exporters who send contaminated stock. The line is that if we're tough on exporters they'll be tough on us. But they're tough on us anyway."

Three months ago Biosecurity NZ imposed an export ban on capsicums and tomatoes after a bacterium was found in three hot houses transmitted by the tiny tomato/potato psyllid. Thirty people lost their jobs and the country's $34 million capsicum export business was put on hold along with $7.3 million worth of tomato exports.

Light brown apple moths on a consignment of forsythia meant an instant slamming of US borders to all New Zealand flowers.

Although no major incursions have yet been attributed to roses, ever-more voracious pests are banging at the door. The microscopic chilli thrip which sucks plants dry in weeks, has been discovered on Indian roses.

And it is not fussy. Along with roses, it devastates kiwifruit, grapes, capsicums, asparagus, orchids and natives including pittosporum. It is also resistant to agri-chemicals, travels well and local growers are concerned that it is only a matter of time before in arrives here.

"And this is only the beginning," says Ivicevich. "New Zealand is already working towards a free trade agreement with India."

So why is MAF Biosecurity so relaxed about checking and fumigating imported flowers while their border patrol officers routinely terrorise travellers with large fines and threats of jail for bringing in a banana?

In early August, after months of waiting, the small and fragmented Flower Growers' Association put their concerns to Anderton.

Anderton admitted that MAF Biosecurity "had dropped the ball for around eight months" then went on to explain that enforcing biosecurity regulations was tricky for a small country which relies on primary exports.

"Anderton was adament we can't afford to take the kinds of risks Australia does when it fumigates flowers with methyl bromide," says Blewden, who led the delegation. "We can't be seen as too repressive, because, if we are, our trading partners may impose import standards on us that our exporters will find difficult to comply with."

Anderton is also against New Zealand flower growers labelling with country of origin stickers. "He says it's a trade barrier," says Ivicevich. "Yet every country in the world has country of origin labelling. It's a badge of honour."

Surprisingly, Anderton did say Biosecurity would prepare new standards for imported Indian roses at the department's own cost. "This suggests he took the issue very, very, seriously."

Anderton clarifies his position later. Again he stresses how important unimpeded access to New Zealand is if we are to broker successful free trade agreements. We cannot be seen to be using biosecurity in any way that could be seen as a trade barrier "or our trading partners could take retaliatory action at the snap of a finger!"

As for the new Indian rose standards, "It'll take as long as it takes."

Flower importer Lance Straker, who has a closer relationship with Biosecurity New Zealand, knows more. "MAF are currently following up on a new standard for cut flowers that Flower Imex made last year," he says.

"And funding it for me. It is now number eight on MAF's priority list and Brendan McDonald is already in South Africa inspecting their irradiation facility and meeting with South African Agriculture to discuss the implementation of a new Import Health Standard using irradiation."

And then maybe we can forget about roses laced with Roundup, viruses and thrip hitch-hiking on roses - and possibly local rose growers themselves.

"We obviously believe this is the future for biosecurity in New Zealand and New Zealand MAF have prioritised our request accordingly."

- NZ Herald

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