New Zealand's destiny is inextricably tied to that of its celebrated environment. But our blue and green backyard is now under unprecedented pressure from a wave of pests and human activity, ranging from development and pollution to climate change and tourism. In the fourth part of our week-long series, 50 Questions About the Environment, Professor Travis Glare, director of Lincoln University's Bio-Protection Research Centre, discusses the state of biosecurity in New Zealand and recent pest incursions.
Why is New Zealand's environment and economy particularly vulnerable to threats from plant pests and diseases?
New Zealand is particularly vulnerable because of our unique combination of factors.
Having evolved on isolated islands, our native plants and animals are different to most of the world.
But our economy depends heavily on primary industries based mainly on exotic plants and animals.
Because those plants evolved in different ecosystems, in New Zealand they don't have suites of naturally occurring organisms that would protect them against pests and diseases.
And our native plants and animals don't have natural protection against most exotic pests and diseases.
New Zealand has been hit with some high-profile pests and diseases over recent years - among them Psa-V, Queensland fruit fly, Kauri dieback disease and now myrtle rust. Has this raised general awareness among Kiwis about biosecurity? Or is there still a lack of knowledge or appreciation of the risks?
Most New Zealanders seem to be very aware of biosecurity risks. Our news media give a high profile to specific issues, and TV shows such as Border Patrol continually reinforce the message.
Industry is now more engaged, with many sectors having biosecurity officers to develop their own strategies.
However, there is still some way to go. It's difficult to appreciate the risks when, in many cases, no one knows exactly what the risk is.
What pests and diseases are among the most feared and "least wanted" by biosecurity officials and researchers, and why?
Right now one major concern is the brown marmorated stink bug, which has spread from Asia to the US and become a major pest.
If that becomes established in New Zealand it will threaten agriculture, horticulture, and also urban garden plants - as well as literally creating quite a stink.
Another serious threat is the bacterium, Xylella fastidiosa, which causes disease in many commercially important plants and trees.
It has recently spread from the Americas to Europe.
One difficulty with predicting biosecurity threats is that species that don't cause problems in their natural environment could become devastating pests in New Zealand.
So it's more about creating a list of possibilities than pin-pointing the next certainty.
So what are the biggest research questions currently facing scientists and researchers such as yourself?
Several major questions concern researchers.
How can we predict what will establish in New Zealand and cause issues?
Can we target pests and diseases before they arrive?
How can we better detect and exclude them at the border?
How can we identify species rapidly, to respond more quickly?
Can we develop better ways of eradicating new organisms?
How can we use new technology to improve biosecurity?
Some more fundamental areas also help improve biosecurity, such as: why are some organisms successfully invasive while others aren't, or why do some cause disease while others don't?
How might emerging or future technology better allow us to prevent future incursions or tackle the ones we're already dealing with?
Several new developments in technology may help us detect biosecurity threats.
READ MORE: Q&A: Did myrtle rust catch NZ off-guard?
Spectrometry, which uses light to analyse a sample, and acoustics, which uses sound and vibration, are being trialled to see if they can help to detect unwanted organisms.
Many other research and development programmes are looking at how we can use new technology, including technologies that were developed for other reasons.
Even simple technologies, such as phone apps, are being developed to improve biosecurity.
Each new tool improves the biosecurity system a little.
Do you feel our biosecurity systems - ranging from border security to science - are adequately resourced to meet the threat?
It's difficult to put a level on the resourcing biosecurity needs.
In most risk assessments, you would combine the risk with the probability.
However, in biosecurity, one invasion could be catastrophic for our primary sector but we don't know how probable it is.
It's clear we have under-resourced biosecurity, but industry and government have been combining to better resource at least the detection and response side.
We have probably not given biosecurity science the resources it needs, so it has largely reacted to specific incursions.
Developing a larger research community of scientists involved in biosecurity issues, including offshore, will help us to develop more innovative tools to better deal with biosecurity threats.
Further, the Biosecurity 2025 Direction Statement announced by the previous government has a goal of achieving, within the next 7 years, 90 per cent of relevant businesses actively managing pest and disease risks, and 150,000 skilled people that can be quickly drawn on to support responses to biosecurity incursions. Is this realistic and can it be achieved?
New Zealand businesses have made good progress in managing the risks, with the help of government initiatives.
However developing 150,000 people skilled in biosecurity roles is much more difficult.
Quite simply, not enough New Zealand students are enrolling in biosecurity-related subjects at university or other tertiary training providers.
That suggests they don't see biosecurity as a career option.
We need to show that there are jobs in the sector and it's interesting work.
What impact can we expect climate change to have on biosecurity?
Changing climate, especially the increase in extreme events and changing regional climates, will make more areas prone to invasion by pests, weeds and disease.
New threats will emerge as we introduce new crops to respond to regional climate changes.
These new pests could come from regions we have not traditionally been worried about and therefore are not as careful around pathways.
If more major incursions under climate change and increased traffic are unavoidable, how could we make our primary industries and environment more resilient? Should certain industries be already adapting to certain pests or diseases that aren't here yet, as the kiwifruit industry did in the wake of the 2010 Psa outbreak?
This is one area where increased investment would definitely strengthen research and development.
Plant breeding was instrumental in the response to Psa, but the cultivars that have proved Psa resistant were not necessarily developed for Psa, which wasn't in the country at the start of the selection process.
We could develop plants with more resilience to potential threats, but this is long-term research.
Genetic engineering is another option, especially as we learn more about how plants defend against pests and diseases, so increasing the targets for genetic modification.
Of course, the public would have to support such approaches.
Research on the biggest threats to New Zealand plants can help us to respond more quickly when something does arrive, often providing information on what will work.
A group of kiwifruit growers notably took a class action against the Government following the Psa outbreak. That case aside, is it possible we might see more of these legal challenges against state agencies following future incursions?
I am no expert on the legalities, but the case could be read as the result of a greater understanding of biosecurity threats and higher expectation of how the Government will handle them.
It is equally possible that the introduction of shared responsibility between government and industry will reduce the number of legal challenges.
It's essential to include Maori in developing our biosecurity framework, as Maori are custodians of New Zealand's ecosystems.
If they are not included I expect the threat of litigation will increase.
MONDAY: Our rivers
TUESDAY: Our nature
YESTERDAY: Our climate
TODAY: Our biosecurity
TOMORROW: Our oceans