By now you've likely heard about the Rotorua Lakes Council's slippery tourism brainchild called Mudtopia. It's a three-day December festival of fun and games conducted in mud.

Not just any mud, mind. Five tonnes of South Korean mud will be imported in dry powder form for the first five Mudtopia festivals, at a cost of around $90,000. Evidently Rotorua's mud - of which there is plenty - is not, on its own, entirely fit for purpose.

The council's mud powder supply agreement with the Boryeong Mud Festival Foundation was signed by Rotorua mayor Steve Chadwick and Boryeong mayor Kim Dong-il in South Korea last week.

Read more: Rachel Stewart: Councils must walk the climate talk

Advertisement

If you're a cynic like me, you have to ask why they're really importing the mud? I suspect the answer lies firmly in Steve Chadwick's comment when she said the agreement "opens up the opportunity for more export products to Korea."

Is it ratepayers or taxpayers footing the bill? Rotorua Lakes Council were initially a bit muddy on the details but, in the end, it became clear that both are on the hook. Either way it's public money and many are incensed by the spend, seeing it as frivolous and unnecessary.

Indeed, the Taxpayers' Union executive director Jordan Williams made a visit to the council on Monday, and presented them with an award for ridiculous spending wastage. Can't say I disagree with that sentiment.

But what's got me concerned - along with more than a few farming folk - is that South Korea suffered a major outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in 2010, and again at the beginning of this year, even though they vaccinate heavily against it.

The 2010-2011 outbreak led to the culling of, by some estimates, over 1 million pigs, and with widespread claims that many were buried alive. It began in November 2010 on pig farms in Andong, Gyeongsangbuk-do, and spread throughout the country quickly. Another outbreak occurred at the beginning of this year.

Foot-and-mouth disease is caused by a virus that only infects cloven-hooved animals. In New Zealand, this includes cows, pigs, sheep, goats, deer, alpaca and llama.

The Ministry for Primary Industries own website states that one of the ways the infected animals can spread the virus is through contamination of mud or soil.

The virus can survive several months without a host (for example, in soil) under favourable conditions. It can spread as far as 200km on the wind and can contaminate clothing, vehicles and roads. It can survive freezing temperatures, and I dread to think what summer temperatures might add to its spreadability.

But here's the big question. Why would MPI risk the importation of this mud powder at all?

SHARE THIS QUOTE:

In a nutshell, it's the agricultural industry's worst nightmare. It would ruin our trading relationships overnight, and bring this country to its economic knees.
Yet, here we are.

Rotorua Lakes Council have confirmed to me that MPI have permitted the importation of the mud powder, subject to "an extensive treatment process in South Korea which includes heating or irradiation."

Rotorua MP Todd McClay, who is also the Trade Minister, has responded to a local farmer's fears by writing that MPI have advised that "this mud consignment has gone through the permit process and is cleaned and filtered and has been heated to 78/80 degrees for 72 hours to kill any bacteria."

All of which raises more questions than answers. Who carries out the heat treatment? If it's done in South Korea how can MPI guarantee it's been done, short of watching it being done? How can MPI ensure that every single individual particle is zapped by the heat treatment?

But here's the big question. Why would MPI risk the importation of this mud powder at all? Is a festival of mud worth taking the risk of allowing foot-and-mouth disease to enter New Zealand via a country that has a long history of the disease, and is still struggling with its containment?

Veterinarian and local Rotorua farmer Dr Alison Dewes told me that "One would want 100 per cent certainty and certification that there is absolutely no risk."

MPI has a well-earned reputation for vagueness. Getting answers from them about biosecurity issues has, for many, never been particularly easy, and over the last decade there have been some serious breaches to worry about.

Think myrtle rust, Queensland fruit fly, the animal limb found in a shipment of Malaysian palm kernel expeller (PKE). How about Bonamia ostreae, the parasite recently found in Bluff oysters?

Or Psa, which could easily have wiped out our entire kiwifruit industry.

The recent outbreak of Mycoplasma bovis in a South Canterbury dairy herd, is of huge concern. MPI say they have yet to discover how it entered the country.

And, look, the odds are that the treatment measures to be taken on the mud will be more than enough. But is Mudtopia worth even contemplating the risk?

Call me a stick in the mud.