The high death-rate of lambs at a farm in Saudi Arabia that will act as a model for Kiwi agribusiness could have been caused by a sand storm, Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy says.
Lambs born after the airfreighting of 900 pregnant ewes to a businessman's Saudi farm suffered a very high death rate.
About $1.5 million in taxpayer money was spent to fly the ewes to Hamood Al Ali Khalaf's private farm.
The director-general for Primary Industries would take the deaths into account when considering any future export of animals for breeding purposes to the region, Mr Guy told a Parliamentary select committee today.
More than 1100 lambs should have been born, it has been reported, but fewer than 300 were found alive after a vet and other staff were urgently flown over from New Zealand.
"I am disappointed that, if these numbers of livestock have died, that that occurred. But...from time to time, livestock do die," Mr Guy told reporters.
The sheep were not on pasture but under some shelter, he said. Asked how so many lambs could die if there was shelter, Mr Guy said there "was a lot of sand in the desert".
"There is a lot of sand and the wind can get up and that caused, as I understand it, some mortality. But I don't have all of the information. Because MPI's role is about the transportation of stock, and adhering to the animal welfare conditions."
Labour's primary industries spokesman Damien O'Connor went on the attack over the Saudi farm deal, which cost taxpayers a total of about $11.5 million, during this morning's select committee.
He queried why money was spent on the farm to act as a demonstration model for New Zealand agribusiness, given it was in a desert, and asked for a full inquiry into MPI's role in the process. That request was declined by Mr Guy.
National has come under intense pressure over the deal, which was done partly to resolve a dispute and clear the way for a regional free trade deal.
Foreign Minister Murray McCully has blamed the previous Labour Government for antagonising Mr Al Khalaf to the point he took advice that he could sue for $30 million.
Mr Al Khalaf lost millions of dollars when a ban on the export of live sheep for slaughter was implemented under the previous Labour Government, and then subsequently extended by National.
The farm deal was a way to defuse that risk, set-up a farm to showcase New Zealand agribusiness, and clear away ill-feeling from the Saudis so that a regional free trade deal could progress, Mr McCully argued.
That version of events has been strongly rejected by Labour, who say National is attempting to shift the blame for actions that would be labelled bribery in many other countries.
Labour's trade spokesman David Parker released redacted 2007 Cabinet papers yesterday that showed that, while Labour was aware of the displeasure a ban would cause Mr Al Khalaf and the Saudis after earlier negotiations had indicated the halt on exports would be overturned, there was no reference to possible legal action from a private investor.